As kids are hanging out even more online than in person during the pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind that not all interactions are positive ones. Cyberbullying has garnered a lot of research attention in recent years, since it appears to share many of the psychological harms as regular bullying, which itself is linked to negative effects well into adulthood. Social media use has been routinely linked to negative mental health effects, especially for girls; and though there are other mechanisms, cyberbullying seems to be one aspect of the connection.
The authors of a new study in the BMJ journal Archives of Disease in Childhood look at the connection between cyberbullying and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in both victim and perpetrator. There does seem to be a connection, for both parties, but why it exist isn’t exactly clear.
The team surveyed over 2,200 students in London, between 11 and 19 years old. They asked them, through surveys (described below) about their experience with bullying, which they define: “Face-to-face bullying is when someone says mean or hurtful things to other people, makes fun of others, ignores or excludes other people, tells lies or spreads rumours about others, threatens to hurt others, or actually hurts other people.” Cyberbullying was similar but included the addendum, “when these things are done online or using communication technology, for example, texting, emailing, Facebook.”
The researchers used the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire to determine whether the participants had engaged in bullying or cyberbullying, as perpetrator, victim, or both. Items involved rating how much one agrees/disagrees with statements like, “I was called mean names, was made fun of, or teased in a hurtful way,” and “I was threatened or forced to do things I didn’t want to do.”
The team also gave a subset of participants a questionnaire called the Children Revised Impact of Events Scale (CRIES) to gauge whether they had PTSD symptoms. Among its questions were, “Do you think about [a past stressful event] even when you don’t mean to?” and “Are you alert and watchful even when there is no obvious need to be?”
It turned out that nearly half (46%) of the participants reported a history of any type of bullying: 17% as victims, 12% as bullies, and 4% as both. In-person bullying was a bit more common than cyberbullying (34% vs. 25%, respectively).
More than one-third of cyber victims (35%) had “clinically significant” PTSD symptoms. And interestingly, nearly 30% of the cyberbullies had PTSD symptoms—more than those who had never engaged in it. However, those who identified as cyber victims had significantly more PTSD symptoms than did cyberbullies, experiencing more intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors (efforts to avoid certain situations related to the trauma). Of the teens who said they had been both cyberbully and cyber victim, about 28% had PTSD symptoms.
It’s important to point out that this was a small correlational study, not an experiment, so it can’t show cause and effect. There are many explanations as to how the relationships work—it could be that cybervictimization leads directly to PTSD, but it could be other things as well. The PTSD could have existed first, or there could be other interactions that explain it. The fact that cyberbullies also were more likely to have PTSD symptoms than non-bullies suggests that the act of cyberbullying might itself be a “symptom” of PTSD related to earlier traumas. At any rate, the connections are probably complex, and will certainly need more work to tease apart.
The authors point out that cyberbullying obviously doesn’t just happen at school—it can occur “both day and night, across home, school and community contexts, is very fast, audiovisual, anonymous, repetitive, reaches a wide audience, may be less visible to adults and is harder to disengage from.” All of these variables give it the potential to be especially insidious. They recommend that pediatricians ask about internet use and cyberbullying as a matter of course, because it is so common and so harmful. And parents should try to understand how their kids are using social media, and guide them in best practices, as much as they can.