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Online bullying affecting adolescent mental health

Bullies and mean girls have been around forever but with the arrival of smartphones and social media, meanness has taken on new forms and dramatically extended its reach.

Digital abuse is now so widespread, and such are its dramatic effects on victims, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a stern warning about the risks posed by cyberbullying to adolescents’ mental health.

But how much do we really know about how to tackle online bullies, asks a new study from Taylor and Francis.

Recently published in the journal of Information, Communication & Society, the research is based on an in-depth analysis of 1094 comments from singer songwriter Amanda Palmer’s viral blog, written in response to the suicide of a young victim of online abuse, Amanda Todd.

The study provides a unique and authentic glimpse into the experiences of traditional bullying as well as cyberbullying, and sheds new light on the coping techniques employed by sufferers. 

“While cyberbullying is rooted in traditional bullying, the distinctive properties of an online environment - anonymity, constant connectivity, and a vague and vast audience - introduce new dynamics that distinguish it from its offline variety,” explain the team leading the research.

“The difficulty to escape one’s tormentors and identify them magnifies the intensity of harmful actions.”

Determined to base their investigation on authentic records, the team rejected traditional respondent-based practices, such as interviews and surveys, in favour of naturalistic methods of investigation, like those based on diaries and medical records.

Because self-censorship and self-consciousness are reduced by the anonymity of the internet, the resdearchers viewed Palmer’s blog as an ideal inlet to access genuine comments on the issue. Following a detailed analysis of all the blog entries, the team were able to identify a number of key topics.

In line with previous research, results showed the top reason for being abused was physical appearance, followed by sexual orientation and an inclination for non-mainstream interests. Although only 25% of all the bullying stories referenced to cyberbullying, a large part of commentators pointed out to the negative role the internet played by magnifying the effects of online harassment; only a small minority stuck up for technology emphasising the importance of being backed up by a supportive online community.

“The findings also brought to light two primary types of coping strategies: behavioural and cognitive,” reveal the researchers. “While the former included techniques such as seeking social support and ignoring the bully, the latter focused on shaping individuals’ microsystem and drawing in their own personal supportive resources.” 

This original study offers insights into the issue of cyberbullying and shows the importance of finding ways to effectively support victims. “While suffers should employ both behavioural and cognitive strategies in response to persecution, it is key to show them the problem doesn’t reside in them, but in the perpetrators,” add the research team. “This, most than anything else, is how you throw internet meanies off their track.”

Read the full article online here.