Cyberbullying Takes Its Toll on College Students

Deborah Brauser

February 24, 2015

Cyberbullying has been linked to a markedly increased risk for depression and problem alcohol use in college students, new research suggests.

A survey study of more than 200 female college students showed that those who were involved with cyberbullying in any way were almost three times more likely to meet criteria for clinical depression than those with no cyberbullying experience.

In addition, cyberbullying perpetrators had more than four times the odds of depression and problem drinking compared with nonbullies.

The investigators, led by Ellen M. Selkie, MD, MPH, from the Division of Adolescent Medicine, University of Washington, in Seattle, note that the findings show that cyberbullying affects college populations and not just middle school and high school students.

"When caring for female college students with depression or problem alcohol use, asking about cyberbullying experiences may uncover stressors that can be targeted in treatment," they write.

The study was published in the February issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

High Rate of Cyberbullying

The researchers note that although previous research suggests younger adolescents who have cyberbullied or who have been the victims of cyberbullying have high levels of depression and other negative health effects, they wanted to assess these associations in college students ― especially because this group most frequently uses digital technology.

In addition, the investigators focused on young women because they commonly have higher rates of depression during their college years compared with their male counterparts, and because they are more likely to be involved in some form of cyberbullying at a younger age.

For the study, 265 female students from three colleges in the Midwest and one in the Western United States completed online surveys between October and November 2012 asking about cyberbullying behaviors. They also completed the Patient Health Questionnaire–9 (PHQ-9), to measure depressive symptoms, and the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT).

All of the young women were between 18 and 25 years of age (mean age, 20.2 years; 84.9% white, 4.5% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% Hispanic/Latino, 2.3% black). A total of 96.6% reported being heterosexual.

Results showed that 27.2% of the women had experienced some form of cyberbullying while in college. Of these, 45 were victims, 19 were bully/victims, and eight were bullies.

In addition, 17.4% of all participants had PHQ-9 scores of 10 or higher, signifying depression, and 36.6% had AUDIT scores of 8 or higher, signifying problem alcohol use.

The female students who reported any type of cyberbullying had significantly higher odds of depression than those without any cyberbullying experience (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 2.9; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.5 - 5.8; P < .01).

Just as Susceptible as Teens

Interestingly, there was no statistically significant association with depression among those who were victims only.

However, bullies had significantly higher odds of depression than those with no experience of cyberbullying (aOR, 4.5; 95% CI, 1.1 - 18.7; P = .04), and even higher odds of problem alcohol use (aOR, 4.7; 95% CI, 1.1 - 20.5; P = .04).

The bully/victims were also more likely to have depression (aOR, 3.2; 95% CI, 1 - 10; P = .05), but not problem drinking.

"The four most common cyberbullying behaviors were also associated with increased odds for depression, with the highest odds among those who had experienced unwanted advances online or via text message," report the researchers.

The aOR for depression after experiencing unwanted sexual advances was 6.1 vs no cyberbullying experience. In addition, the aORs were 4.2 and 3.6 for text harassment and the posting of degrading comments, respectively.

"Findings suggest that college females are as susceptible to the negative mental health effects of cyberbullying as younger adolescents," write the investigators.

However, "a future longitudinal study of cyberbullying and its effects into late adolescence and young adulthood could contribute to the prevention of associated comorbidities in this population," they add.

The authors have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2015;18:79-86. Full article

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