During an evaluation, a 10-year-old girl who was depressed said that classmates called her stupid and laughed at her all the time. Fortunately, the teachers stopped this verbal bullying. However, unbeknownst to the teachers, the students would text disparaging comments to the girl throughout the school day. She was reluctant to inform the teachers because she thought it would worsen the situation.
A 14-year-old girl in treatment for depression reported that she was being bullied in school. She said that girls in her classes constantly made negative comments about her appearance, dress, and behavior. They excluded her from social activities despite her desire to participate. She said that the girls were telling lies about her to boys in the class, which was damaging her reputation. What upset her the most was that an online site had been created in which students were encouraged to write all the reasons they hated her. She cried and said that she could not avoid the bullying even outside of school. She believed the only way to escape the bullying was to not exist anymore, and she confirmed that she was suicidal.
Cyberbullying, which allows bullying to extend beyond face-to-face contact into electronic media, has received considerable recent attention. Hamm and colleagues1 examined its effects via social media among children and adolescents. They included 36 studies of cyberbullying in their review. Most youths in these studies were middle and high school students, aged 12 to 18 years. The majority were female (55.8%).
Across these studies, 23% of the youths reported having been bullied online. The most common electronic social media platforms for bullying included message boards, social networking sites, blogs, Twitter, and Web pages. The most common types of cyberbullying were name-calling or insults, circulating pictures, and spreading gossip and rumors. Often relationship issues preceded the bullying. Girls were more likely to be cyberbullied than boys.
Adolescents who had been cyberbullied reported becoming more withdrawn, losing self-esteem, and feeling uneasy. There were adverse effects on relationships with family and friends. School grades worsened, there were more school absences, and behavior problems in school became common.
Depression was associated with cyberbullying. The adolescent’s level of depression increased significantly with exposure to cyberbullying. In some cases, cyberbullying was associated with self-harm behavior and suicidal ideation and attempts.
The most common strategies employed by the adolescents to deal with cyberbullying were to block the sender, ignore or avoid messaging, and protect personal information. Nearly 25% of the adolescents did not tell anyone about the cyberbullying. If they did tell someone, it was most likely to be a friend rather than an adult. Often adolescents perceived that nothing could be done to prevent the bullying, and if they told their parent about the bullying, they would lose access to the computer. Researchers suggest that increased awareness of the prevalence of cyberbullying and its adverse effects may lead to better prevention and management strategies.
The correlation between depression and bullying
In a recent study, Bowes and colleagues2 examined the association between being bullied by peers at age 13 and the occurrence of depression at 18 years. The study comprised 6719 adolescents from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children cohort in the UK. About 10% (n = 683) of the participants reported frequent bullying at age 13. The proportion of youths with depression increased with the frequency of bullying: 14.8% of the youths who were frequently bullied met criteria for depression, whereas 7.1% of youths who were occasionally bullied and 5.5% of youths who were not bullied met criteria for depression.
Dr Wagner is the Marie B. Gale Centennial Professor and Chair Ad Interim in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
1. Hamm MP, Newton AS, Chisholm A, et al. Prevalence and effect of cyberbullying on children and young people: a scoping review of social media studies. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169:770-777.
2. Bowes L, Joinson C, Wolke D, Lewis G. Peer victimisation during adolescence and its impact on depression in early adulthood: prospective cohort study in the United Kingdom. BMJ. 2015;350:h2469.
3. Sibold J, Edwards E, Murray-Close D, et al. Physical activity, sadness, and suicidality in bullied US adolescents. J Am Acad Child Adolescent Psychiatry. 2015;54:808-815.14.