Cyberbullying and Depression in Children

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Chances are that your family has at least one computer, tablet, or smartphone with Internet access that your child uses for fun and learning. While you may be vigilant about monitoring your child's use and restricting access to inappropriate content, you may not be aware that Internet bullying, also known as cyberbullying, can occur through simple emails, instant messages, or posts and comments created by others.

Like other forms of bullying, serious consequences like depression and suicidal thoughts and behavior have been linked to cyberbullying, according to Dr. Jeff Hutchinson, an adolescent medicine specialist in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, your awareness and vigilance can keep your child safe from cyberbullying.

How Cyberbullying Affects Children

Victims of cyberbullying can experience symptoms of depression including sadness, loneliness, insecurity, poor self-esteem, academic decline, feelings of not belonging, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

If your child is struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Nancy Willard, author of "Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress," writes that the effects of cyberbullying may be more damaging than in-school bullying because cyberbullied children do not have the opportunity to escape the harassment. Due to the anonymous nature of some Internet harassment, victims may not be able to identify their harasser and feel that everyone is against them.

On the flip side, research has shown that perpetrators of childhood cyberbullying are likely to be facing concurrent behavioral and psychosocial challenges, meaning that youth internet harassment might be a marker for other issues.

How Common Is Cyberbullying?

Dr. Michele Ybarra and colleagues published a study on Internet harassment among children in 2007 that found that approximately 9% of children in their study who used the Internet were victims of some form of Internet harassment.

In their study, the researchers found that only half of the victims knew their harasser and that boys and girls were equally involved.

Approximately 25% of children who were cyberbullied were also bullied in a different setting.

Interestingly, they found that the odds of being harassed online increased significantly for those who also harassed others.

Types of Cyberbullying

According to experts, there are two main types of cyberbullying: direct and by proxy.

Direct Cyberbully Attacks

Direct Internet attacks occur when a bully shows aggression toward another person directly either through email, instant messaging, chat rooms, or social posts. This can range from insulting comments to threats of physical violence.

Cyberbullying by Proxy

Cyberbullying by proxy, on the other hand, occurs when a person uses another person's email address or username or creates an imposter account to harass a victim. The bully may contact everyone in their address book to spread lies, hateful messages, or reveal contact or personal information about the victim. In some cases, websites dedicated to harassing and bashing a person have been created. In the case of cyberbullying by proxy, the victim may not be able to identify who the harasser is.

What Parents Can Do 

While the effects of cyberbullying can leave parents feeling helpless, there are things you can do to prepare and protect your child from experiencing or perpetrating it.

Talk to Your Kids

First and foremost, talk to your children about appropriate Internet behavior, your family rules for Internet use, and discuss consequences for misuse. Enforce consequences when the rules are broken by taking away devices or turning off internet access when necessary.

Monitor Web Access

Monitor your child's Internet use and time spent on devices. Keeping the computer in a common area may decrease the temptation to engage in inappropriate activity. Dr. Parry Aftab, attorney and children's advocate for safe Internet use, suggests searching for your child's name on the Internet to make sure negative or false information has not been posted, or that your child is not linked to harassing content.

Contact Websites

If bullying behavior, harassment, or misuse is identified, notify the website or application's administration immediately to see if they can help launch an investigation into the incident. Contact the police if your child is being contacted or harassed by an adult, if any threats are made against your child, or if efforts to stop the harassment have failed. Notifying your child's school about cyberbullying may also be effective when the bully can be identified.

Watch for Signs of Depression

If you notice symptoms of depression in your child, consult with their pediatrician. Their doctor can determine whether your child has clinical depression and recommend the appropriate treatment.

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Article Sources
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  1. Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ. Prevalence and frequency of Internet harassment instigation: implications for adolescent health. J Adolesc Health. 2007;41(2):189-95. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.03.005

  2. Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ, Finkelhor D, Wolak J. Internet prevention messages: targeting the right online behaviors. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(2):138-45. doi:10.1001/archpedi.161.2.138

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