Cyber-bullying cases always seem to garner attention and outrage, but perhaps no more so than the recent, well-publicized tragedy at Rutgers University, where a student committed suicide after a friend and his roommate secretly filmed a compromising video of him and posted it online. Part of the shock of that event has a lot to do with the public's realization that cyber-bullying doesn't end with grade school and playground politics. "I can tell you that two to three years ago, I was going along assuming that bullying ends at the end of high school," says Elizabeth Englander, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. "But since then, there have been a couple of studies showing that bullying and cyber-bullying happen at the college level. People don't magically wake up when they're 18 and realize these things should no longer happen."
Still, cyber-bullying takes a particularly heavy toll on younger children, who are likely to find themselves more depressed after a cyber-bully attack than after other forms of bullying, finds a new study published in the September issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. While the study authors suggest that the anonymity behind cyber-bullying drives students to feel lonely, Englander thinks that there's more at play. "Anything you do online is there forever, and I think that's part of the depression issue—this sense that things that have been done to you can be seen over and over again, even after you get older," Englander says.
THE DETAILS: The authors of the new study used data from a 2005 to 2006 study of health behaviors in school-age children. Their sample included 7,313 students with an average age of 14, about evenly split between boys and girls. Each student filled out a survey gauging his or her emotions for the previous 30 days, for instance, whether they felt sad, hopeless about the future, or had difficulty concentrating on schoolwork; they also reported how frequently they were involved in different types of bullying, such as physical, verbal, or cyber-bullying, as either the bully or the victim or both. Frequent victims of cyber-bullying had the highest reported levels of depression, compared to victims of other sorts of bullying. The authors found that cyber-bullying affects bullies differently as well. Whereas physical bullies are likely to report higher levels of depression than their victims do, cyber-bullies report significantly lower levels of depression than their victims.
WHAT IT MEANS: The results of this study confirm all too well what the Rutgers suicide case made clear: Cyber-bullying can have devastating affects. The study authors put it this way: "Unlike traditional victims, cyber-victims may experience an anonymous attacker who instantly disperses fabricated photos throughout a large social network; as such, cyber-victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized, or helpless at the time of the attack."
In other words, cyber-bullying is more than just typical schoolyard torment conducted in an online environment. "There such a sense of helplessness, much more so with cyber-bullying than with other types of bullying," says Susan Swearer, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who researches cyber-bullying. "Technology has changed our culture and in some sense we haven't been prepared for it, and now, we're seeing the consequences."