Bottom Line: Cyberbullying was associated with mental health and substance use problems in adolescents but family dinners may help protect teens from the consequences of cyberbullying and also be beneficial for their mental health.1
Author: Frank J. Elgar, Ph.D., of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, and colleagues.
Background: About 1 in 5 adolescents has experienced recent online bullying and cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, can increase the risk of mental health problems in teens as well as the misuse of drugs and alcohol. It is important to understand whether cyberbullying contributes uniquely to mental health and substance use problems independent of its overlap with traditional face-to-face bullying. Family dinners are an outlet of support for adolescents.
How the Study Was Conducted: The authors examined the association between cyberbullying and mental health and substance use problems, as well any moderation of the effects by family contact and communication through family dinners. The study included survey data on 18,834 students (ages 12-18) from 49 schools in a Midwestern state. The authors measured five internalizing problems (anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation and suicide attempt), two externalizing problems (fighting and vandalism) and four substance use problems (frequent alcohol use, frequent binge drinking, prescription drug misuse and over-the-counter drug misuse).
Results: Nearly 19 percent of the students reported they had experienced cyberbullying during the previous 12 months. Cyberbullying was associated with all 11 of the internalizing, externalizing and substance use problems. Family dinners appeared to moderate the relationship between cyberbullying and the mental health and substance use problems. For example, with four or more family dinners per week there was about a 4-fold difference in the rates of total problems between no cyberbullying victimization and frequent victimization. When there were no dinners the difference was more than 7-fold.
Discussion: “Furthermore, based on these findings, we did not conclude that cyberbullying alone is sufficient to produce poor health outcomes nor that family dinners alone can inoculate adolescents from such exposures. Such an oversimplified interpretation of these associations disregards other exacerbating and protective factors throughout the social environment. Instead, these findings support calls for integrated approaches to protecting victims of cyberbullying that encompass individual coping skills and family and school social supports.”
In a related editorial2, Catherine P. Bradshaw, Ph.D., M.Ed., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, writes: “The article by Elgar and colleagues highlights the importance of cyberbullying in relation to mental health concerns, with particular interest in the role of families. Their focus on cyberbullying is salient because this is an issue that often challenges schools and policy makers given that it can occur in any context and at any time of the day, and it often spills over from one setting to another.”
“The permeability of cyberbullying across contexts and the omnipresence of technology, coupled with the challenges parents face monitoring online activities and communication, make it a particularly appropriate focus of this study. In fact, parents may play a greater role in preventing and helping to intervene in cyberbullying situations than educators owing in part to their direct influence over youths’ access to electronic devices,” Bradshaw continues.
“The often-secret online life of teens may require parents to step up their monitoring efforts to detect this covert form of bullying,” she notes.
1. JAMA Pediatr. Published online September 1, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.1223
2. JAMA Pediatr. Published online September 1, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.1627.