Cyberbullying and Its Impact on Mental Health: The Unseen Consequences of Social Media

September 30, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Since the introduction and rapid rise of the internet, cyberbullying has become an increasingly prolific issue, with social media playing a significant role.

This article explains what cyberbullying is, who is at risk, the prevalence of cyberbullying, and how it can impact mental health.

Warning: this article contains references to suicide

 

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines the two terms as:

[Bullying is] persistent threatening and aggressive physical behavior or verbal abuse directed toward other people, especially those who are younger, smaller, weaker, or in some other situation of relative disadvantage.

Cyberbullying is verbally threatening or harassing behavior conducted through such electronic technology as cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging.

Harmful cyberbullying behavior can include posting rumors, threats, sexual remarks, a victims’ personal information, or pejorative labels (i.e. hate speech). It can also mean sending texts or posting images intended to hurt or embarrass another person, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.

Cyberbullying could be limited to posting rumors or gossip about a person on the internet, bringing about hatred in other’s minds. However, it may also go to the extent of personally identifying victims and publishing material, severely defaming and humiliating them.

In addition to an intent to harm the victim, the frequency of the hostile or aggressive behavior is a crucial part in defining it as bullying. While it is unpleasant and unacceptable to be the target of one-off aggressive behavior or abuse, it is not classified as bullying unless there is an ongoing, persistent nature to the activity.

 

Who is at risk of cyberbullying?

Technically, anyone with access to electronic technology, spends time online, gaming, or has any kind of social media account is at risk of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying tends to fall into two specific types of activity:

  1. Victimization that has moved from offline bullying to the online world. Research suggests that traditional bullies are 2.5 times more likely to cyberbully than someone who has never bullied[1]. In this scenario, the bully/bullies seek multiple ways to threaten and abuse the target of their harassment. Gaining access to their mobile devices via phone number, email address or social media handles means bullies are able to send messages to their victim online. This may take the form of abusively worded messages and/or a large volume of calls, texts, emails, comments, or direct messages.
  2. Bullying behaviors that exist only in the online world. This is commonly experienced by those with higher profile social media accounts who may not even know the person bullying them. Many high profile users including celebrities have spoken openly about the vitriol they receive from strangers on the internet.

 

What is the difference between cyberbullying and cyberstalking?

Cyberbullying and cyberstalking are intertwined concepts that both encompass forms of victimization experienced online. While cyberbullying involves targeted harassment, cyberstalking goes a step further by involving the use of the internet or electronic platforms to relentlessly pursue and torment individuals, groups, or organizations.

The act of cyberstalking encompasses a range of malicious behaviors such as spreading false accusations, engaging in defamation, slander, libel, monitoring someone’s activities, stealing their identity, issuing threats, engaging in online vandalism, soliciting sexual activities, revealing personal information (‘doxing’), or resorting to blackmail.

 

Cyberbullying and the law

In the United States, laws concerning cyberbullying vary from state to state, as there is no federal law specifically targeting cyberbullying. However, several states have implemented legislation to address this issue.

Here are some common approaches taken by states regarding cyberbullying:

1. Criminalization
Some states have enacted laws that make certain forms of cyberbullying a criminal offense. These laws typically focus on severe cases involving harassment, threats, or stalking behaviors.

2. School Policies
Many states have laws that require schools to establish policies addressing bullying, which might include provisions for cyberbullying. These policies often outline preventive measures, reporting procedures, and disciplinary actions.

3. Harassment and Stalking Laws
Existing harassment and stalking laws can be applied to cyberbullying cases. These laws prohibit intentional, repeated, and unwanted communication or behavior that causes emotional distress or fear.

4. Safe School Initiatives
Some states have implemented safe school initiatives that include cyberbullying prevention programs and education campaigns, as well as resources for students, parents, and educators.

5. Civil Remedies
In addition to criminal laws, civil remedies may be available in certain states. This allows victims to seek protection orders, injunctions, or sue for damages in cases of cyberbullying.

It’s important to note this is a general overview, and the specific laws and provisions can vary significantly between states. If you require detailed and up-to-date information on the laws concerning cyberbullying in a particular state, it is recommended to consult the statutes and legal resources specific to that jurisdiction.

 

What do the numbers say? Cyberbullying social media statistics

According to one report involving parents of children between the ages of 10 and 18, 21% of children have been cyberbullied[2].

The same report also found that age and socioeconomic status are relevant. As a child’s age increased, so did the likelihood of cyberbullying. As the child aged in two-year intervals between the ages of 10 and 18, their likelihood of being cyberbullied increased by 2%. Children from households with annual incomes of under $75,000 were twice as likely to be cyberbullied than children from houses with annual incomes of over $75,000 (22% versus 11%).

Other relevant factors that increase the likelihood of being a victim of cyberbullying include gender and race, with reports suggesting women and girls and Black or Hispanic people are at greater risk of victimization via cyberbullying[3].

Another study suggests that 44% of internet users in the U.S. have experienced online harassment. The most prevalent type of online harassment was offensive name-calling, making up 37% of all instances[4].

This trend plays out across a range of studies. In 2022, the Pew Research Center investigated teens and cyberbullying, finding the most common type of harassment youth encounter online is name-calling. According to their findings, 42% of teens say they have been called offensive names online or via their cell phone.

Additionally, about a third (32%) of teens say someone has spread false rumors about them on the internet. Smaller percentages have had someone other than a parent constantly ask where they are, who they’re with, or what they’re doing (21%) or have been the target of physical threats online (16%).

 

Which social media has the most reports of cyberbullying?

A 2023 report found that of all the social networks, children on YouTube are the most likely to be cyberbullied at 79%, followed by Snapchat at 69%, TikTok at 64%, and Facebook at 49%[5].

 

Cyberbullying and mental health

Multiple studies have found a link between being the victim of cyberbullying and experiencing poor mental health.

Victims of cyberbullying may experience lower self-esteem, increased suicidal ideation, and various negative emotional responses, including being anxious, frustrated, angry, or depressed[6]. Correlations between cyberbullying and anxiety exist, as do associations between cyberbullying and reports of depression. Five studies investigated self-harm or suicidality, with conflicting results[7].

In a hospital study conducted among Bosnian adolescents, researchers found that individuals diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorders exhibited elevated levels of cybervictimization, as indicated by higher scores[8].

Similarly, a study involving 1691 Malaysian adolescents discovered that those with symptoms of depression were more prone to experiencing cyberbullying, both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic[9].

Finally, a study conducted among college students in China revealed a correlation between cyberbullying encountered in social media and online gaming environments and increased symptoms of anxiety and internet addiction[10].

 

How is cyberbullying linked to suicide?

In the United States, suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults. Traditional in-person bullying is recognized as a significant factor that elevates the risk of suicidal ideation and attempts for both those who are victimized and those who perpetrate the bullying.

In recent years, there has been a concerning surge in cyberbullying, which occurs primarily in online spaces. This trend has been further amplified by the increased reliance on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the connections between cyberbullying and its impact on thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts are not as thoroughly understood as the effects of in-person bullying.

A 2022 study[11] found that approximately 9% of young adolescents spoke of being targeted by cyberbullying, while less than 1% admitted to engaging in cyberbullying themselves. However, a significant majority of those who perpetrated cyberbullying also experienced it firsthand.

Those who experienced cyberbullying were over four times as likely to report thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts compared to those who did not encounter such harassment. This correlation remained significant even after adjusting for other influential factors such as family conflict, racial discrimination, parental monitoring, and school support, which are known to impact thoughts of suicide and attempts. The study further revealed that experiencing cyberbullying increased the risk of suicidal ideation and attempts independently of in-person bullying.

However, in contrast to the patterns observed solely with in-person bullying, perpetrating cyberbullying did not demonstrate an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts. The study did not investigate the underlying reasons for this phenomenon. However, researchers suggest that cyberbullies may not fully comprehend the consequences and impact of their actions on their victims, leading to this divergence in outcomes.

 

What is the best approach to tackling cyberbullying?

Identifying cyberbullying isn’t always easy. However, technology can help. A study[12] of harassment behaviors on Twitter in 2019 found that it is possible to use technology to surface cyberbullies. Researchers developed a rigorous methodology for differentiating bullies and aggressors from regular Twitter users through text, user, and network-based attributes. They used advanced machine learning algorithms to classify these accounts with an accuracy rate exceeding 90%.

The good news when it comes to cyberbullying is there are relatively straightforward ways to manage it. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, the single most effective way to prevent/stop cyberbullying is to block the bully.

They found that out of teenage cyberbullying victims:

  • 36% asked the bully to stop cyberbullying them
  • 34% blocked all communication with the bully
  • 29% did nothing
  • 11% talked to their parents about the incidents

Almost two-thirds of tweens said they tried to help someone who was being bullied online, with 30% trying to help multiple times, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.

However, stopping cyberbullying is just the first stage in tackling this form of harassment. It will not eliminate the impact of the bullying on the victim’s mental health.

 

How to heal from cyberbullying

If you have been the victim of bullying, harassment, victimization, or stalking of any kind, speaking to a mental health professional can help you to make sense of the experience. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s important to get help.

Traumatic events in our lives do not automatically heal over time. For many of us, we revisit them over and over again. And they can permanently hold us hostage to fear, regret, anger, and guilt.

Talking therapies have plenty of evidence to support their use in making sense of and healing from trauma. The Center • A Place of HOPE has experienced specialists that can help you. If you or any of your loved ones are suffering from past trauma, it is important that you ask for help.

Please call during opening hours, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PT, Verify Insurance or complete the form below.


[1] Vigderman, A. (2023). 5 shocking cyberbullying facts that every parent should know. Security.org. https://www.security.org/news/cyberbullying-facts/
[2] Vigderman, A. (2023). 5 shocking cyberbullying facts that every parent should know. Security.org. https://www.security.org/news/cyberbullying-facts/
[3] Arnon S., et al. (2022). Association of Cyberbullying Experiences and Perpetration With Suicidality in Early Adolescence. JAMA Netw Open. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.18746
[4] Shevenock, S. (2020). YouTube, Netflix and Gaming: A Look at What Kids Are Doing With Their Increased Screen Time. Morning Consult. morningconsult.com/2020/08/20/youtube-netflix-and-gaming-a-look-at-what-kids-are-doing-with-their-increased-screen-time/
[5] Security.org Team. (2023). Cyberbullying: Twenty Crucial Statistics for 2023. Security.org. https://www.security.org/resources/cyberbullying-facts-statistics/
[6] Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding to cyberbullying. Corwin Press.
[7] Hamm M.P, et al. (2015). Prevalence and Effect of Cyberbullying on Children and Young People: A Scoping Review of Social Media Studies. JAMA Pediatr, 169(8), 770–777. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0944
[7] Ünal-Aydın P., et al. (2023). The role of metacognitions in cyberbullying and cybervictimization among adolescents diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Disorders: A case-control study. Clin. Psychol. Psychother. doi: 10.1002/cpp.2826
[8] Pang K.Y., et al. (2023). The Prevalence and Association of Cyberbullying and Depression in the Malaysian Adolescent Population During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Vulnerable Child Youth Stud. doi: 10.1080/17450128.2022.2159599
[9] Huang J., et al. (2021). Cyberbullying in social media and online games among Chinese college students and its associated factors. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 18:4819. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094819
[10] Arnon S., et al. (2022). Association of Cyberbullying Experiences and Perpetration With Suicidality in Early Adolescence. JAMA Netw Open. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.18746
[12] Chatzakou, D. et al. (2019). Detecting cyberbullying and Cyberaggression in social media. ACM Transactions on the Web, 13(3), pp. 1–51. doi:10.1145/3343484

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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