Cyberbullying is linked to a variety of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, not only in victims but cyberbullies as well, according to a new study of over 2,000 UK teens.
Over a quarter of cyberbullies suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, the study, published Tuesday in the Archives of Disease in Childhood Journal, found.
Clinical psychologist Ana Pascual-Sánchez, one of the authors of the study at Imperial College London, said her team was surprised by those results.
“Perpetrating aggression exposes bullies to potential violent situations in which they can lose control and even feel vulnerable at some point or regret from it, having intrusive memories,” Pascual-Sánchez said.
More than 2,200 teens ages 11 through 19 from four London schools were questioned for the study. The researchers used the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire to first narrow down the types of bullying. They found that cyberbullying was less likely, with one of four teens being involved, versus one in three teens being involved in traditional bullying.
Nearly 75% of the teens filled out the Children’s Revised Impact of Events Scale to screen for PTSD symptoms. Thirty-five percent of cyberbully victims scored above the threshold for PTSD symptoms, while 29% of the teens who did the cyberbullying showed signs of PTSD.
Cyberbullies were less likely to also be traditional bullies, the researchers also found, although they did observe teens who fell under both categories.
“It seems as if the anonymity provided by online means could increase the risk of cyberbullying perpetration, providing a platform that is easy to access and that can reach others quickly and easily,” Pascual-Sánchez said.
Because this was an informational study, there are no official findings on why some cyberbullies displayed PTSD symptoms. Further research needs to be completed to understand causation and to dive deeper into the symptoms, Pascual-Sánchez said.
Mental health challenges
Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, said he had not heard of cyberbullies experiencing PTSD symptoms in his research, but that it makes sense with other mental health struggles he has observed regarding cyberbullying.
Hinduja said he focuses on childhood trauma, also known as adverse childhood events, that kids can experience growing up. While some are resilient and can overcome their adversities, others develop problematic behavioral symptoms, according to Hinduja.
“We absolutely need professionals to continue to study some of these underlying psychological and physiological components, which can lead to these problems,” Hinduja said.
Through his research, Hinduja found that those issues can manifest into cyberbullying for a number of reasons, such as someone feeling jealous or insecure. Other common reasons someone engages in cyberbullying include peer pressure or a stressful home life.
While he noticed in his own research that a large percentage of teens who cyberbully also engage in in-person bullying, he agreed with Pascual-Sánchez that some prefer to exclusively cyberbully to remain anonymous.
“They’re more likely to feel free from social norms and morals and ethics and rules and possible punishments and sanctions when they’re behind a screen and physically distant or geographically separate from the target,” Hinduja said.
There are multiple warning signs that a teen could be engaging in cyberbullying, according to Hinduja. Some signs include the teen using their device at all hours of the night or quickly switching or hiding their screen when someone walks by. They may also be demonstrating increased sensitivity or appear more irritable.
Cyberbully victims may exhibit similar behavior, but also have their own set of warning signs, Hinduja said. Teens may isolate themselves or stop using their device for a time. Some common emotional symptoms include anger or frustration.
If you are a cyberbully victim, Hinduja recommended a three-step approach to seek help. The first step is to take advantage of the controls that are within apps and sites, such as block, mute and report. The second step is to file formal reports with the social media companies so that they can begin an investigation. Lastly, he recommended that cyberbully victims reach out to someone they trust in their circle, such as a parent or counselor, to talk about what happened online.
“Those adults, they want to help,” Hinduja said. “They don’t want you to continue to struggle and suffer. And usually there is some sort of solution if you will just let them know what’s going on.”
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When it comes to treating teens who engage in cyberbullying or are victims of cyberbullying, Hinduja said that mental health assessments need to be standard. He believed that it needs to be a community effort with schools and doctors working together to treat the effects of cyberbullying, but also to help prevent it.
“All of (these efforts) will help illuminate PTSD and trauma and somebody’s adverse childhood event that we can then treat, which will hopefully lead to less problematic, emotional and psychological consequences down the road.” Hinduja said.