Social media has created new ways for people to connect with each other, but it has also created new ways for people to demean and harass each other. Over the last several years, cyberbullying has led to several high-profile suicides that have made national news, but the problem is much more widespread than the few cases that have gotten media attention.
As a result, researchers have started trying to learn more about what cyberbullying is, when it happens, and what can be done about it. What they’ve found suggests that this problem affects a lot of people in significant ways and deserves urgent attention.
One thing they’ve confirmed is that cyberbullying isn’t much different than regular bullying. In fact, people who are victims of cyberbullying are highly likely to be victims of other kinds of bullying too.
In one study, 23 percent of the over 28,000 high-school students surveyed reported being victims of some kind of bullying. Of those students, over half reported being victims of both cyberbullying and traditional bullying while only 4.6 percent reported being victims of cyberbullying alone.
These numbers also suggest that cyberbullying is very common although there’s no consensus over how common it is, partly because different researchers define cyberbullying in different ways. A systematic review of 58 studies found that estimates of how many middle- and high-school students are victims of cyberbullying ranged from 3 percent to 72 percent, and estimates of how many students are perpetrators ranged from 1 percent to 41 percent. Despite these differing estimates, it’s clear that cyberbullying affects many people.
It’s also clear that cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, is associated with a variety of mental health problems. Research published this month linked bullying in general to higher depression, higher anxiety and lower self-esteem and found that experiencing cyberbullying on top of traditional bullying tended to make these psychiatric symptoms worse. Another study found that cyberbullying is related to low body esteem.
Finally, some research has suggested that bystanders’ responses play a significant role in cyberbullying, as they do in traditional bullying. Specifically, teens who are lower in empathy and who perceive verbal aggression and online aggression as more normal seem to be more likely to go along with cyberbullying and less likely to support people who are being bullied online.
The fact that cyberbullying goes unchallenged when bystanders see it as normal and accepted suggests that there’s room to change attitudes toward cyberbullying and that doing so might have a real impact in reducing online bullying. Cyberbullying is just as serious as traditional bullying, and it has long-term implications for the mental health of many teenagers, so any interventions that undermine the perception of online bullying as something ordinary and socially acceptable have the potential to help a lot of people.