Victims of cyber-bullying while at school are at a greater risk of depression than others, according to a survey conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, US.
While traditional forms of bullying involve physical violence, verbal taunts, or social exclusion, cyber bullying, or electronic aggression, involves aggressive behaviors communicated over a computer or a cell phone - say, Facebook pages, online chat groups and cellphone text messages.
Past studies on traditional bullying show that bully-victims — those who both bully others and are bullied themselves — are more likely to report feelings of depression than are other groups.
"Notably, cyber victims reported higher depression than cyber bullies or bully-victims, which was not found in any other form of bullying," the NIH study authors wrote in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "...unlike traditional bullying which usually involves a face-to-face confrontation, cyber victims may not see or identify their harasser; as such, cyber victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized or helpless at the time of the attack."
The analysis, of 6th through 10th grade students, was conducted by Jing Wang, Ph.D., Tonja R. Nansel, Ph.D., and Ronald J. Iannotti, Ph.D., all of the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Dr. Iannotti noted that, although bullies are less likely to report feelings of depression than are bully-victims or victims, they are more likely to report depression than are youth not involved with any bullying behaviors — either traditional bullying or cyber bullying.
Being bullied interferes with scholastic achievement, development of social skills, and general feelings of well being, explained Dr. Iannotti, the study's senior author. In a study published last year, he and study coauthors reported that the prevalence of bullying is high, with 20.8 percent of U.S. adolescents in school having been bullied physically at least once in the last two months, 53.6 percent having been bullied verbally, and 51.4 percent bullied socially (excluded or ostracized), and 13.6 percent having been bullied electronically.
The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration advises parents to encourage children to tell them immediately if they are victims of cyberbullying or other troublesome online behaviors. The agency also lists a number of steps that parents can take to help prevent cyber bullying and how to respond to it on its website.
In the current study, the research team sought to examine the association between depression and cyber bullying, which has not been studied extensively.
To conduct the study, the researchers analyzed data on American students collected in the 2005/2006 Health Behavior in School-aged Children Study, an international study of adolescents in 43 countries. The researchers measured depression by gauging responses to six survey items. Students were asked to indicate, if, within the past 30 days, they felt very sad; grouchy or irritable, or in a bad mood; hopeless about the future; felt like not eating or eating more than usual; slept a lot more or a lot less than usual; and had difficulty concentrating on their school work. Students ranked their response according to a five item scale ranging from "never" to "always."
They were also asked to indicate whether they were involved with bullying behaviors, whether as perpetrators or victims. Survey questions were designed to measure the following forms of bullying: physical (hitting), verbal (such as name calling), relational (social isolation and spreading false rumors), and cyber (using computers or cell phones). The researchers classified bullying others or being bullied "two or three times a month" as frequent, and "only once or twice" as occasional. Respondents were further classified as either not involved with bullying (either as bullies or victims), bullies, victims, or bully-victims (who had bullied others and also been bullied themselves).
Compared to students who were not involved with bullying, adolescents who were bullies, bully victims, or victims tended to score higher on the measures of depression. Those frequently involved with physical, verbal, and relational bullying, whether victims or perpetrators, reported higher levels of depression than did students only occasionally involved in these behaviors.
For physical violence, no differences were found in depression scores among bullies, victims, or bully-victims. For verbal and relational bullying, victims and bully-victims reported higher levels of depression than bullies.
For cyber bullying, however, frequent victims reported significantly higher levels of depression than frequent bullies and marginally higher depression than frequent bully-victims. The finding that victims of cyber bullying reported higher depression scores than cyber bully victims was distinct from traditional forms of bullying and merited further study.
Boys were more likely to cyber-bully, and girls were more likely to be cyber-victims. But for those targeted by such behavior, the tendency toward depression was similar, regardless of sex.
Bullying is linked to lower levels of academic achievement, well-being and social development. It can also affect the future. "There is a lot of evidence that psychological problems in adolescence can persist into adulthood," Iannotti said.
Because of the association between bullying and depression, bullies, bully-victims, and victims are candidates for evaluation by a mental health professional, Dr. Jing Wang said.
She said that in their earlier study, they had found that students were less likely to bully or to be victimized if they felt they had strong parental support—feeling that their parents helped them as much as they needed, were loving, understood their problems and worries, and helped them to feel better when they were upset.
The issue has drawn increased attention since Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who had moved from Ireland to Massachusetts, hanged herself in January after she reportedly was tormented verbally, on Facebook and through text messages. The day of her suicide, a harasser reportedly pummeled her with a beverage can as she walked home from school. Prosecutors have charged six fellow students in her case and raised questions about the actions of school officials who knew about incidents of abuse, wrote Donna St. George for Washington Post.
Heather Applegate, supervisor of diagnostic and prevention services in Loudoun County public schools, said, "With cyber-bullying, you can't get away from it. In order to get away, you have to stop using social networking or stop using your cellphone."
"Involvement of schools and parents is really important," Iannotti said. "It's really got to be a community effort - working with teachers, administrators, parents, and working with kids to improve their social skills so these kinds of things don't happen."