Cyberbullying Perpetrators and Victims at Risk for Physical and Psychiatric Problems

Deborah Brauser

July 14, 2010

July 14, 2010 — Both cyberbullies and their victims are likely to experience psychiatric and psychosomatic problems, according to a new study of more than 2000 Finnish adolescents that also found that 1 in 4 of those who had been victimized reported fearing for their safety.

However, those who were both cybervictims and cyberbullies at the same time were the most troubled of all, report the investigators.

"To our knowledge, no [other] population study examining psychosocial and psychiatric risk factors associated with cyberbullying among adolescents exists," write lead author Andre Sourander, MD, PhD, from the Department of Child Psychiatry at Turku University in Finland, and colleagues.

"[These] results have implications for public awareness, policy makers, educators, parents, and clinicians working in adolescent health services," add the study authors. "Clinicians...should be aware that cyberbullying is potentially traumatizing[, and] questions about cyberbullying should be included in adolescent mental health assessment."

The study appears in the July issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Early Stages of Research

Cyberbullying is defined as "an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual using electronic forms of contact repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself," the investigators write.

They note that cyberbullying research "is still in the early stage of investigation," with previous surveys including a limited number of participants, being mostly descriptive, examining only specific aspects of cyberbullying, not being based on population-based samples, "or carried out as just one part of a larger research program."

For this study, the investigators examined anonymous questionnaires from 2215 adolescents (between the ages of 13 and 16 years; 50% boys) from 2 cities in Finland. Between March and April 2008, all participants filled out self-reports on cyberbullying and cybervictimization during the previous 6-month period. In addition, the reports included demographic information and questions on any physical health problems experienced.

A self-report version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire was also used to screen for psychopathology and both positive and negative behavioral traits.

Risk Factors

Results showed that 4.8% of all study participants were cybervictims only (of these, 64% were girls), 7.4% were cyberbullies only (of these, 62% were boys), and 5.4% were cyberbully-victims (of these, 55% were boys).

Although both sexes reported "being cyberbullied most frequently by their peers of the same age," being bullied by their opposite-sex peers was reported by 16% of the girls vs 5% of the boys.

When looking at the full sample, "2.3% reported being bullied by a same-sex adult, 3.1% by an opposite-sex adult, 10% by an unknown person, and 5.1% by a group of people," all of which were associated with a fear of safety, write the study authors.

In fact, 22.8% of all cybervictims reported that they had been scared for their safety, "indicating possible trauma" and 30.6% to 46.2% of those cyberbullied by an adult reported fear of safety.

When looking at the association with psychosocial risk factors, the investigators found that cyberbully-only status was predicted by conduct problems (odds ratio [OR], 2.6; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.5 - 4.5; P < .001), hyperactivity (OR, 2.4; 95% CI, 1.4 - 3.9; P < .001), and low prosocial behavior (OR, 2.3; 95% CI, 1.5 - 3.4; P < .001)

It was also associated with perceived difficulties, frequent smoking and drunkenness, headache, and not feeling safe in school.

Cybervictim-only status was predicted by emotional problems (OR, 2.2; 95% CI, 1.2 - 3.9; P = .007) and peer problems (OR, 4.8; 95% CI, 2.9 - 7.7; P < .001) and was associated with living in a family with other than 2 biological parents, perceived difficulties, headache, recurrent abdominal pain, sleeping difficulties, and not feeling safe at school.

"Cyberbully-victim status was associated with all of [the] risk factors," write the study authors. "This implies the need for new strategies for prevention and intervention."

Finally, computer instant messages (18%) and discussion groups (13.8%) were the most common places for cyberbullying, and the most common complaints among both boys and girls were name calling and being the target of rumors.

"There is a need to create cyberenvironments and supervision that provide clear and consistent norms for healthy cyberbehavior," report the study authors.

In addition, "future research is needed on whether antibullying policies, materials, interventions, and mobile telephone and internet user guidelines are effective for reducing cyberbullying," they summarize.

Policies Needed

"Overall, this is a solid, well-designed study," Sameer Hinduja, PhD, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter, and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told Medscape Medical News.

"Their findings are very much in line with what we've found in our research, such as with behavioral consequences, but in a very different population of Finnish students," added Dr. Hinduja, who was not involved in this study. "However, their rates of victimization were quite low as compared to what we've found here in America."

He noted that in one of his center's studies of 4500 randomized adolescents, roughly 20% reported being aggressors online and 20% to 21% reported being victims.

When asked whether he was surprised about this study's finding that those who were both bullies and victims had the most problems, Dr. Hinduja answered, "not at all, that makes sense."

"As kids are growing up, so much is related to social significance and how you fit in with your peer group," he explained. "If you have this type of relational conflict going on, whether you're being harassed by others or you're harassing others, I think that contributes to so much instability and so many questions about your development and self-confidence and self-worth. [These adolescents] are negotiating power and control over others, and having that being negotiated over them that can be extremely rough.

"Overall, I'm encouraged that more researchers are tackling cyberbullying, not just to present percentages and proportions but to look at meaningful, contributing factors and correlates, which was done in this study," said Dr. Hinduja. "I think most importantly, we want to make sure that this translates into policy and practice, and informs educators and other youth professionals who are on the front lines."

The study authors and Dr. Hinduja have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67:720-728. Abstract

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