Online bullying is associated with an increased risk for depression and problem drinking among college-age women.
So say the authors of a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. A team of researchers, led by Dr. Ellen Selkie of the Seattle Children’s Hospital, surveyed 265 female college students at four American universities to see how many had been persecuted by cyberbullies. To determine the status of their emotional health, the women were asked to complete forms designed to measure depression and detect problematic relationships with alcohol.
Among the original group of 265, 17.4 percent reported symptoms consistent with clinical depression while 37.5 percent registered positive for problem drinking. More than one in four (27 percent) of the young women reported encounters with cyberbullies, and cross-correlations were made to determine how much of a risk factor online bullying was for the relevant health conditions.
To no one’s surprise, victims of online bullying frequently struggled with depression. In fact, their risk of developing depression was three times greater than for unaffected women in the general student population. The situation was especially rough for young women who’d experienced virtual bullying with sexual overtones; the members of this subgroup were six times more likely to have experienced depression than non-bullied women.
But while this result was predictable, another discovery of the Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking study caught researchers off guard. Young women who’d admitted to being bullies themselves were just as likely as their victims to experience depression following or concurrent with their participation in this noxious behavior. And while the bullied did not demonstrate higher-than-normal levels of excessive drinking, their harassers were actually more likely to have unhealthy relationships to alcohol than members of the general student population.
When Bullies Become Their Own Victims
The relationship between depression and cyberbullying seems clear and hard to dismiss. But this study was not designed to prove cause and effect in the strictest sense.
In the case of bullies, the association of their behavior with depression and problem drinking could be a sign they feel guilty or stressed because of their actions. Or it could be that depression comes first and causes them to lash out at the people around them as they struggle to understand why their lives have gone off track. Scapegoating others for their troubles could be a natural reaction in some instances, and this could lead to the bullying and harassment of classmates or roommates.
And needless to say, people under the influence of alcohol can often turn hostile, violent or combative as a result of their drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption could be playing a role in bullying activity, leading to aggressive behavior that might include cyberbullying or online harassment targeted against anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course people often drink to escape emotional pain, and for some young women, problem drinking and bullying could be manifestations of deeper psychological disturbance.
College-Age Women in Harm’s Way
Up until now, precious little research has been done into the problem of online bullying among young adults. Among adolescents the story is different; it has been well-established through extensive study that teens targeted by cyberbullies suffer depression and anxiety and are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts. But the experiences of the generation beyond has been overlooked, leaving mental health experts with an incomplete picture of the true impact of this deranged behavior.
From the results obtained in this new study, it is clear online bullying exacts a terrible price on women in the 18-24 age group. Cyberbullying is a morass from which no one escapes unscathed, and the fact that victimizers suffer even more than their victims drives this point home with authority.
And the online minefield offers still more forms of danger for young women. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 26 percent of college-age women had been stalked online and 25 percent had been subjected to online sexual harassment. Much of this is an outgrowth of bullying but some of it is not, which reveals just how extensive the risks are for those who choose to swim in the shark-infested waters of social media.
Everyone needs to know that cyberbullying has become incredibly common and is causing an incredible amount of pain and sorrow for young people. When young women are showing signs of distress, friends and family members should not overlook the possibility that online bullying might be the cause of the trouble. Women who suffer at the hands of bullies could benefit immensely from counseling or therapy, and based on these latest research findings, it is clear that their victimizers need a lot of help as well.