Cyberbullying, sometimes referred to as electronic victimization, is a public health concern in the Internet age and has been associated with multiple negative mental health outcomes. It remains under-recognized among college students; however, it is not surprising that cyberbullying occurs in college, given that college students are among the most frequent users of digital technology.
Cyberbullying in college
Cyberbullying among college students may represent a continuation of behaviors from middle and high school but in new contexts. Aggressors may use more subtle attacks that are meant to exclude or leverage power over others rather than being overtly aggressive. Prominent components of cyberbullying in college can include electronic criticisms of identity, sexual harassment, and “outing” of private information such as sexual orientation or health diagnoses without consent (eg, sexually transmitted infections, psychiatric conditions). These behaviors are considered in the context of a spectrum of aggressive behaviors that are typical concerns on college campuses, such as intimate partner violence and physical and sexual assault.
In addition, the alarming issue of students bullying faculty members has been anecdotally described.1 Several campuses have debated banning the location-based, anonymous app Yik Yak following postings of abusive content about faculty and students.
College students are an important population on which to focus regarding cyberbullying because older adolescence can be formative for habits that persist into young adulthood. Promotion of open dialogue and free speech is a hallmark of the college experience; however, heated online debates have the potential to devolve into personal attacks and harassment. Bullying behaviors that attack college students’ identities may have a considerable impact, given that the undergraduate years are critical for adult identity formation.
Psychiatric correlates of cyberbullying
The most concerning potential negative consequence of cyberbullying is suicide, which has been reported in mainstream media but not empirically studied in college students. One notable example is that of Tyler Clementi, a young man who died of suicide following the spread of derogatory content regarding his sexuality through social media by his college roommate.2 There is no current research published about actual suicide attempts or completion among college students involved in cyberbullying.
A few studies have examined the negative health sequelae of cyberbullying among college students. In a study of college students who were members of fraternities or sororities, behavioral characteristics of those involved in cyberbullying included callous, unemotional traits (reflective of sociopathy).3 Moreover, both perpetrators and victims had increased depressive symptoms and fewer social skills.
Two other studies suggest increased depression, anxiety, and suicidality in victims of cyberbullying and depression and alcohol abuse in perpetrators.4,5 Among younger adolescents, cyberbullying has been associated with suicidality, depression, substance abuse, somatic symptoms, and school problems.6
Reactions to cyberbullying can include feelings of depression and suicidality or feelings that may be less extreme, such as transient distress, embarrassment, and sadness.7 In addition, bullying in college may be either electronic or face to face. Regardless, it is important to consider potential negative sequelae of cyberbullying because depression and alcohol use are already among the most common and consequential health concerns for college students.8 Given the high prevalence of depression and alcohol abuse in this population, examination of risk factors is crucial for prevention of morbidity and mortality.
Dr Selkie is Clinical Lecturer in Adolescent Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Dr Moreno is Associate Professor in Adolescent Medicine at the University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Hospital and Principal Investigator, Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. Mahler J. Who spewed that abuse? Anonymous Yik Yak app isn’t telling; 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/technology/popular-yik-yak-app-confers-anonymity-and-delivers-abuse.html?_r=0. Accessed January 12, 2016.
2. Wikipedia. Suicide of Tyler Clementi. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Suicide_of_Tyler_Clementi&oldid=681792601. Accessed January 12, 2016.
3. Kokkinos CM, Antoniadou N, Markos A. Cyber-bullying: an investigation of the psychological profile of university student participants. J Appl Develop Psychol. 2014;35:204-214.
4. Reyns BW, Henson B, Fisher BS. Being pursued online: applying cyberlifestyle-routine activities theory to cyberstalking victimization. Crim Just Behav. 2011;38:1149-1169.
5. Selkie EM, Kota R, Chan YF, Moreno M. Cyberbullying, depression, and problem alcohol use in female college students: a multisite study. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2015;18:79-86.
6. Aboujaoude E, Savage MW, Starcevic V, Salame WO. Cyberbullying: review of an old problem gone viral. J Adolesc Health. 2015;57:10-18.
7. Moreno M, Davis K, Mills J. Youth perspectives on social media and technology. Adoles Med. 2014;25:17-21.
8. Association ACH. American College Health Association: National College Health Assessment. Baltimore, MD: American College Health Association; 2013. http://www.acha-ncha.org/. Accessed January 12, 2016.