Cyberbullies and Victims Suffer Physical and Mental Toll

Cyberbullying  — aggressive, intentional, repeated acts using cell phones or computers to contact victims — may take a mental and physical toll on both the victim and the perpetrator of the electronic abuse, according to a new study from Finland.

The relatively recent phenomenon was associated with physical problems, including headaches, and psychiatric problems, such as emotional difficulties, for both bullies and their targets, the researchers say.

In the United States, a recent survey on Internet use among children between 10 and 17 years old, 12 percent reported being aggressive to someone online, 4 percent were targets of aggression and 3 percent were both aggressors and targets.

"There are several special features regarding cyberbullying when compared with traditional physical, verbal or indirect bullying, such as the difficulty of escaping from it, the breadth of the potential audience and the anonymity of the perpetrator," the researchers write in the July issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association.

Surveying bullies and victims

Andre Sourander, of Turku University in Finland, and colleagues analyzed the results of 2,215 questionnaires given to Finnish adolescents age 13 to 16. In addition to information about cyberbullying and cybervictimization, the teens were asked to report their demographic information, general health, substance use, traditional bullying behavior and psychosomatic symptoms, such as headache and abdominal pain.

The results showed that in the previous six months, 4.8 percent of the participants were victims of cyberbullying, 7.4 percent acted as cyberbullies, and 5.4 percent were both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying.

Being a cybervictim was associated with living in a family with other than two biological parents; perceived difficulties in emotions, concentration, behavior, or getting along with other people; headache; recurrent abdominal pain; sleeping difficulties and not feeling safe at school.

Being a cyberbully was associated with perceived difficulties in emotions, concentration, behavior, or getting along with other people; hyperactivity; conduct problems; infrequent helping behaviors; frequently smoking or getting drunk; headache and not feeling safe at school.

 Being both cyberbully and cybervictim was associated with all of these conditions.

Cyberbullying vs. the traditional kind

The results agree with previous work on traditional bullying, which has suggested both bullies and their victims suffer from an array of psychiatric problems, including suicidal thoughts, and physical problems, such as stomachaches.

However, the researchers note cyberbullying is harder to prevent than traditional bullying. And in some ways, cyberbullying may be worse emotionally for victims because the aggressive acts can occur at anytime, anywhere.

"Of those who had been victimized, one in four reported that it had resulted in fear for their safety," the researchers say. "The feeling of being unsafe is probably worse in cyberbullying compared with traditional bullying. Traditional bullying typically occurs on school grounds, so victims are safe at least within their homes. With cyberbullying, victims are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The results suggest that cyberbullying is an increasingly important type of harmful behavior.

"There is a need to create cyberenvironments and supervision that provide clear and consistent norms for healthy cyberbehavior. Clinicians working in child and adolescent health services should be aware that cyberbullying is potentially traumatizing," the researchers write. "Policy makers, educators, parents and adolescents themselves should be aware of the potentially harmful effects of cyberbullying."

The study was funded by the Pediatric Research Foundation, Finland, and by the Finnish-Swedish Medical Association.