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When Bullying Goes Online

By Kristi Kindrick, MD, Valley Behavioral Health, and
Eric Messias, MD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Department of Psychiatry

What was once limited to playgrounds and school bus rides has mutated via today's technology into something much more sinister and pervasive. Cyberbullying is the new buzzword, gaining attention through media reports and catching the eyes of people ranging from state politicians to high school principals. It is easy to chalk all the noise up to media dramatics, but when we start breaking down the real numbers, the data speaks for itself.

In the 2011 Centers for Disease Control Youth Risk Behavior Survey given to high school students across the nation, including our own Arkansas teens, we see some disturbing trends. This survey is a questionnaire given to students in grades 9-12 and tries to assess risky behaviors in which teens engage. For the first time in 2011, a question was included regarding cyberbullying.

Teens who reported being a victim of both cyberbullying and bullying at school indicated depressive symptoms 4.6 times more often than those who were not bullied, and they reported thinking about suicide (the most important indicator for a suicide attempt) 6.4 times more often.

We then looked at the data for depression and suicidal thoughts in teens who reported being victims of school bullying only, versus those who were cyberbullied only. We saw higher rates of depression in the students who were cyberbullied, as well as almost double the incidence of suicidal thoughts compared to those that were school bullied alone. In other words, there was more evidence of the psychological distress in kids were who were only cyberbullied compared to those who were just school bullied.

People often ask, "What makes cyberbullying so much worse than school bullying?" Unfortunately, given the relative newness of this topic, we have no firm answers. Some of the demographic evidence may offer some clues. Victims of cyberbullying are more often white females, followed by Hispanic and black females, with grade ranges most frequently being ninth and tenth graders.

This victim group may be more susceptible to worse outcomes because of the emotional ups and downs that are part the maturation process in teens, the all-important desire to fit in, and the ever-increasing access these younger ages have to various electronics, often unsupervised and basically 24/7.

We also tend to see a decrease in communication in this age group with their parents, often seeking advice from peers who, unfortunately, are not equipped with the wisdom and knowledge their friends need.

Efforts are being made at various levels to combat this problem. However, the best thing any concerned parent can do is open the door of communication with their child. If your child is becoming more withdrawn, having appetite changes, appearing more tired, losing interests in things they previously enjoyed, or is more irritable than usual, consider professional help, either through their pediatrician, a psychiatrist or other mental health professional. Prevention is the key to combatting this new, and very real, problem.

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