NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Like victims of
face-to-face bullying, kids who experience internet bullying are
vulnerable to mental health and substance use problems – but spending
more time communicating with their parents may help protect them from
these harmful consequences, a new study suggests.
For example, the researchers found, regular family dinners seemed to
help kids cope with online bullying. But they say talk time with
parents in cars or other settings can also help protect against the
effects of cyberbullying.
“In a way, cyberbullying is more insidious because it’s so hard to
detect,” said lead author Frank J. Elgar of the Institute for Health
and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal.
“It’s hard for teachers and parents to pick up on,” Elgar told
Reuters Health by phone.
He and his team used voluntary, anonymous survey data from more than
18,000 teens at 49 schools in Wisconsin.
About one in five students said they’d been bullied on the Internet
or by text messaging at least once over the past year.
“The good news is that most of the kids in this sample from
Wisconsin had not been cyberbullied,” Elgar said.
Cyberbullying was more common for girls than for boys, for kids
who’d been victims of face-to-face bullying, and for those who
themselves had bullied other kids in person. Cyberbullying tended to
increase as students got older.
Youngsters who’d been cyberbullied were more likely to also report
mental health problems like anxiety, self-harm, thoughts of suicide,
fighting, vandalism and substance use problems, according to results
in JAMA Pediatrics September 1.
Almost 20 percent of the kids reported an episode of depression,
while around five percent reported suicide attempts or misuse of
over the counter or prescription drugs.
Teens who were often cyberbullied were more than twice as likely to
have been drunk, fought, vandalized property, or had suicidal
thoughts, and were more than four times as likely to have misused
drugs than those who were never cyberbullied.
One survey question asked how many times each week the teen ate the
evening meal with his or her family.
As the number of weekly family dinners increased, the differences in
mental health issues for kids who were or were not cyberbullied
“It’s hard for parents to know where kids are spending time online
on their smartphone, laptop or other device,” said Catherine P.
Bradshaw of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in
“It’s more challenging for parents to be able to monitor,” she said.
Bradshaw wrote a commentary that was published in the same issue of
the journal, along with the researchers’ paper.
“We don’t know exactly what those parents were talking about at
dinner, but we do know they were spending more time together face to
face,” she told Reuters Health by phone.
Family discourse can happen in many settings, including at dinner or
while driving around in the car, she noted.
“If parents want to try to figure out how many nights a week should
I turn off the TV and spend time with my kids, it’s nice to see data
on this,” she said.
Parents who have an opportunity to talk to their kids about bullying
problems should emphasize that it wasn’t the victim’s fault and that
you shouldn’t hit back or retaliate, Bradshaw said.
“The more contact and communication you have with young people, the
more opportunities they have to express problems they have and
discuss coping strategies,” Elgar said. “Essentially the
relationships between victimization and all other mental health
outcomes were lessened with more frequent family dinners.”
Family dinners are a proxy indicative of a range of other contextual
factors that affect kids relating to family contact open
communication, he said. Many families aren’t able to have family
dinners together, but that doesn’t mean the kids are out of luck or
that communication can’t happen, he said.
“It would be wrong to focus solely on family dinners as the active
ingredient in all this,” Elgar said.
“The message that comes through for us is to talk to your kids,” he
said. “Unless you take time to check in, a lot goes undetected.”