Like victims of face-to-face bullying, kids who experience Internet bullying are vulnerable to mental health and substance use problems — but spending more time communicating with their parents may help protect them from these harmful consequences, a new study suggests.
For example, the researchers found, regular family dinners seemed to help kids cope with online bullying. But they say talk time with parents in cars or other settings also can help protect against the effects of cyberbullying.
“In a way, cyberbullying is more insidious because it’s so hard to detect,” said lead author Frank J. Elgar of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal.
“It’s hard for teachers and parents to pick up on,” Elgar told Reuters Health by phone.
He and his team used voluntary, anonymous survey data from more than 18,000 teens at 49 schools in Wisconsin.
About one in five students said they’d been bullied on the Internet or by text messaging at least once over the past year.
“The good news is that most of the kids in this sample from Wisconsin had not been cyberbullied,” Elgar said.
Cyberbullying was more common for girls than for boys, for kids who’d been victims of face-to-face bullying and for those who themselves had bullied other kids in person. Cyberbullying tended to increase as students got older.
Youngsters who’d been cyberbullied also were more likely to report mental health problems like anxiety, self-harm, thoughts of suicide, fighting, vandalism and substance use problems, according to results in JAMA Pediatrics.
Nearly 20 percent of the kids reported an episode of depression, while around 5 percent reported suicide attempts or misuse of over-the-counter or prescription drugs.
Teens who were often cyberbullied were more than twice as likely to have been drunk, fought, vandalized property or had suicidal thoughts, and they were more than four times as likely to have misused drugs than those who were never cyberbullied.
One survey question asked how many times each week the teen ate the evening meal with his or her family.
As the number of weekly family dinners increased, the differences in mental health issues for kids who were or were not cyberbullied decreased.
“It’s hard for parents to know where kids are spending time online on their smartphone, laptop or other device,” said Catherine P. Bradshaw of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“It’s more challenging for parents to be able to monitor,” she said.
Bradshaw wrote a commentary that was published in the same issue of the journal, along with the researchers’ paper.
“We don’t know exactly what those parents were talking about at dinner, but we do know they were spending more time together face to face,” she told Reuters Health by phone.
Family discourse can happen in many settings, including at dinner or while driving around in the car, she noted.
“If parents want to try to figure out how many nights a week should I turn off the TV and spend time with my kids, it’s nice to see data on this,” she said.
Parents who have an opportunity to talk to their kids about bullying problems should emphasize it wasn’t the victim’s fault and that you shouldn’t hit back or retaliate, Bradshaw said.
“The more contact and communication you have with young people, the more opportunities they have to express problems they have and discuss coping strategies,” Elgar said. “Essentially the relationships between victimization and all other mental health outcomes were lessened with more frequent family dinners.”
Family dinners are a proxy indicative of a range of other contextual factors that affect kids relating to family contact open communication, he said. Many families aren’t able to have family dinners together, but that doesn’t mean the kids are out of luck or that communication can’t happen, he said.
“It would be wrong to focus solely on family dinners as the active ingredient in all this,” Elgar said.
“The message that comes through for us is to talk to your kids,” he said. “Unless you take time to check in, a lot goes undetected.”