A new study from researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton has found that when it comes to cyberbullying among teens, not only are girls more likely to be targeted than boys but they are at more risk of developing emotional problems as a result of cyberbullying.
Thanks to technology, today’s teens are dealing with a social milieu unlike any experienced before. All relatively new platforms for social interaction, electronic communication through instant messaging, chat rooms, texting and social media apps has changed the landscape for adolescents and made the task of getting through the growing up years, unfortunately, all the more precarious of an adventure.
Just by the nature of their developmental stage, being a teen means dealing with a perfect storm of issues, all of which make bullying extremely impactful on the adolescent. Conceptually, teens are grappling with newfound abilities to think in more abstract terms about their own identity and their place within social contexts, peer groups and family structures. Yet while learning to use these tools of self-conceptualization, they’re also dealing with the emotional and hormonal uproar that is adolescence, making it all the more difficult to process the newfound social realities opening up before them.
All this is to say that the psychological sensitivity of teenage years is apparent and the risk of developing serious psychological disorders during adolescence is high. A recent study done in the United States found that half of all lifetime cases of DSM-IV mental disorders begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters of them start by 24.
Cyberbullying — using electronic means such as texts, emails, photo sharing and instant messaging to act cruelly or to threaten or embarrass someone — is an especially powerful tool for bullying, making it a more intense and impactful form. There’s the lack of face-to-face contact and anonymity of online and electronic communication. There’s the widespread reach of messages sent through social media, the instant reproducibility and the virtual permanence of the bullying message. All of this gets magnified by the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, making cyberbullying available and present all the time and everywhere.
And while research has delved into the effects of traditional bullying and victimization on adolescents’ psychological development and looked at the impact that cyberbullying has on teens’ emotional stability, specifically with reference to suicidality, there is less evidence on the way that cyberbullying affects male and female teens differently.
Researchers with McMaster University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience conducted an anonymous survey of 31,148 Ontario students in grades six to 12 to find out the frequency of their exposure to different forms of bullying and to gauge mental health problems experienced over the previous six months.
The results showed that verbal bullying was the most frequently experienced type, with 25.8 per cent of respondents indicating exposure. Physical bullying was reported by 9.5 per cent of respondents and cyberbullying by 9.1 per cent. And while the majority (64.5 per cent) of those reporting physical bullying were males, females made up more of those reporting cyberbullying (61.0 per cent).
As well, the study found that while physical bullying and verbal bullying were more strongly associated with emotional problems in males than females, cyberbullying had the stronger association with emotional problems in females and with behavioural problems in males.
“This research provides a better understanding of the role of sex on the prevalence of cyberbullying and its association with mental health problems in the context of other types of bullying,” say the study’s authors. “Our findings suggest a unique, negative effect of cyberbullying victimization on adolescent mental health and that the magnitude of the effect is comparable, and in some instances, stronger than more traditional forms of bullying victimization.”
The study is published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.