This is a guest post by Emily Isenberger. Emily is associated with a website which provides resources for people interested in counselling, with a particular focus on how bullying and mental illness have been exacerbated by the Internet.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can leave lasting scars. Once a fact of childhood, playground bullying has taken to the internet and social media networks. For a new generation, the advent of cyberbullying means that home, once a safe haven from a school environment, is just as dangerous, if not more so. Because cyberbullying can reach larger groups, be performed anonymously, and comments can last forever, those bullied have no escape hatch and school administrators have little power to punish perpetrators. This can lead to serious mental health consequences.
Across the board, victims of cyberbullying demonstrate higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and withdrawal from school and other activities than their peers. Studies have shown that people who are bullied develop abnormalities in brain maturation. Specifically the corpus callosum, which binds the hemispheres of the brain together, lacks myelin when under stress, and therefore lessens the ability of the individual to deal with vision and memory. In other words, short-term bullying can have long-term effects on brain development.
Girls who are bullied produce less cortisol than girls who were not bullied; boys who are bullied produce more cortisol than boys who were not bullied. Because cortisol is the hormone secreted to help deal with stress, girls have a tendency towards shutting down completely, without the tools to process further stress. On the opposite hand, the fight or flight mechanism in boys triggers the former response, and boys have a tendency towards lashing out against their aggressors. Cortisol changes like this also depress the immune system, meaning that bullied students are likely to get sick more often than their classmates.
Bullying affects more than just the victim. Families and other bystanders have higher incidence of depression, absence, and substance abuse addiction. Even the aggressors have a greater likelihood of domestic abuse, criminal violation, and alcoholism down the line.
Cyberbullying can affect people of any age, race, or class, but if you want to study and research cyberbullying, Australian teenagers may unfortunately be the ideal subjects. Australian teenagers took the number one spot in Ipsos testing across 24 countries, and the results are in, just short of 90% of families in Australia have been affected by bullying.
To prevent or overcome bullying, take the opportunity to talk to your children about their internet usage. If they’re feeling threatened by someone over the web, they do not have to sit quietly. Go over their options for privacy settings and talk about how to handle negative interactions with people over the internet. Currently, only one in three families use Internet-filtering software, and 40% restrict Internet usage to common areas. By putting blocks in place and monitoring how long your child can be on the web, you reduce not only his or her chance at being bullied, you reduce the chance that he or she will be the bully.
Let your children know that you’re there to talk if they need you, but don’t push for more information than they’re willing to give. Above all, stay aware of changes in your child’s behavior. For more resources on counteracting cyberbullying, you may turn to the Jed Foundation’s website, which focuses on preventing suicide in bullied college students, but has information applicable to all age groups.