Cyberbullying on social media is linked to depression in teenagers, according to new research that analyzed multiple studies of the online phenomenon.
Victimization of young people online has received an increasing level of scrutiny, particularly after a series of high-profile suicides of teenagers who were reportedly bullied on various social networks. In 2013, for example, a spate of suicides was linked to the social network Ask.fm, where users can ask each other questions anonymously. The deaths of teens who had been subject to abuse on the site prompted Ask.fm (which was acquired by Ask.com in 2014) to launch new safety efforts. Twitter, likewise, announced plans in April to filter out abusive tweets and suspend bullying users.
Social media use is hugely common among teenagers, said Michele Hamm, a researcher in pediatrics at the University of Alberta, but the health effects of cyberbullying on social media sites is largely unknown. Regular, face-to-face bullying during the teen years may double the risk of depression in adulthood, and bullying’s effects can be as bad or worse than child abuse, studies show.
A depressing effect
In the new review, Hamm and her colleagues combed through studies on cyberbullying and social media, finding 36 that investigated the effects of cyberbullying on health in teens ages 12 to 18. Although the studies examined different health outcomes and sometimes defined cyberbullying differently,
The studies covered a variety of social sites, but Facebook was the most common—between 89 percent and 97.5 percent of the teens who used social media had a Facebook account. Seventeen of the 36 studies analyzed looked at how common cyberbullying was, and the researchers found that a median of 23 percent of teens reporting being targeted. About 15 percent reported bullying someone online themselves.
Two studies examined the prevalence of so-called “bully-victims,” meaning teens who both bully others and are bullied. Research on offline bullying shows these kids to be most at-risk for mental health problems. One study found that 5.4 percent of teens were bully-victims, while the other reported a prevalence of 11.2 percent.