A study featured in this month's Pediatrics (Vol. 118, No. 4) indicates cyberbullying among teens and preteens has increased by 50 percent in the last five years as youths increasingly chronicle their lives on Web logs, or "blogs," and socialize online through chat rooms, instant-messaging and such Web sites as Facebook.com.
Public health researcher Michele Ybarra, PhD, of Internet Solutions for Kids Inc., and psychologist Kimberly Mitchell, PhD, of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, presented the findings from a survey of 1,500 youths ages 10 through 17 at APA's 2006 Annual Convention. The youths reported whether they had experienced Internet harassment in the past 12 months. Such "cyberbullying" included receiving aggressive or hurtful e-mails or instant messages or being a victim of online gossip.
Ybarra and Mitchell found that nine percent of the youths had been targeted, up from six percent in a similar study they conducted in 2000-likely due to the growing popularity of online socializing. Examples included receiving unnerving messages relating to their appearance or containing disturbingly personal details or threats of being assaulted at school. Others said harassers threatened to spread rumors about them or post embarrassing photos of them online.
Not all students felt very distressed about the online harassment-though nearly half did, noted Ybarra. Thirty-eight percent of those bullied reported being "very or extremely upset or afraid because of the incident," according to the study. Teens who were heavily involved in chat rooms were the least likely to be bothered by harassment, added Ybarra, perhaps because they were more savvy Internet users or more used to coarser language that may flow in chat rooms. Bullying that involved offline contact by the harasser or involved an adult harasser was the most strongly related to increased distress. Thirty-two percent of those harassed reported being targeted three or more times in the previous year, either by the same person or multiple people. "For some young people, Internet harassment can be a serious event," said Ybarra, adding that youths who are targeted are more likely to also report social problems, interpersonal victimization and harassing peers online themselves than youths who aren't targeted.
The good news is that many bullied teens are speaking up, noted Ybarra. Sixty-eight percent of those who experienced Internet harassment said they disclosed the incident to a friend, parent or other authority figure. That disclosure provides an opportunity for parents and professionals to work with youths to prevent a future event and ask whether the teen may be struggling socially or experiencing communication problems with peers, added Ybarra, pointing to additional survey findings that suggest teens who struggle to communicate are more likely to be targets of Internet harassment.