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Cyberbullying Common, Devastating

Close to 80% of college students have suffered at least one episode

Peers can in fact become the linchpin of life for some adolescents. They’re easier to communicate with than parents, more fun than family, and can be a valuable support system. But if all the kids in a group are at the mercy of their limbic systems, it’s sadly easy for someone to turn into a bully and someone else to turn into a victim.

Although according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the rates of bullying are dropping, one in five students aged 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year (the highest percentage is among sixth graders). And of those who report being bullied, one third say they’re bullied at least one to two times a month. Although about 21% say the bullying lasted two weeks or less, many report being bullied over years.

Social media have weaponized bullying. Even grade-school children are suffering from cyberbullying, although the typical bully/victim situation involves older children and teens. In a study of 1,108 college students, 78% said they had suffered at least one episode of cyberbullying. (And 51% said they had committed at least one cyber-aggression in the previous year.)

Cyberbullying is different from verbal and written harassment: It’s usually public, available online forever, and the perpetrators are often anonymous. That means the victim often feels defenseless against the attacks, with devastating consequences. 

Kids who are bullied over time are more likely than those not bullied to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. They’re more likely to be lonely and want to avoid school. It takes a toll on how they feel about themselves, their relationships with friends and family, their schoolwork, and their physical health. They often have trouble sleeping, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.  Their stress response systems suffer, as do their cognitive functions and emotional self-regulation. Even more concerning, targets of cyberbullying are at greater risk of both self-harm and suicidal behaviors. 

It’s also hard on the children who witness the bullying, whether they support the bully or the victim: They may experience cumulative stress related to fears of retaliation or because they wanted to intervene but didn’t. Witnessing bullying over and over can be a form of toxic stress, and has been linked to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. But it may also create more bullies. According to Evans et al., engagement in negative bystander behavior—that is, supporting the actions of the perpetrator—is “one step removed from bullying others.”

And, finally, it’s hard on the kids who do the bullying. They too are more likely to experience depression, they’re prone to poor psychological and social outcomes, and they’re more likely to participate in risky activities. 

A study reported in the Journal of School Health found that both cyberbullying and school bullying and/or victimization were independently associated with increased depression. Another group of researchers found that aggression co-occurred with “almost all other behavioral and social problems,” although the correlations were lower for internalizing behaviors, including depression. Those researchers developed an interactive tool showing the comorbidities of child aggression with other childhood psychopathies.

Until recently, mental health education was being addressed on an ad hoc basis, but last year some states began requiring it, aiming to not only help children be stronger but to remove the stigma from help-seeking. Virginia, for instance, now mandates mental health classes for grades nine and ten; Florida, as of July, mandates at least five hours of mental health instruction starting in sixth grade. But New York, which in 2018 became the first state to mandate mental health classes for grade schoolers, has gone farthest, requiring classes even for children as young as three.

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