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Cyberbullying and Public Health

Bullying can have clear, negative impacts on both mental and physical health for the victim

Bullying can have clear, negative impacts on both mental and physical health for the victim as well as the perpetrator. Accordingly, bullying has long been a concern for those in the public health field. The advent and proliferation of digital media have brought cyberbullying to the forefront today. Yet methods of cyberbullying prevention and intervention have been slow to catch up with advancements in technology and the experience of today’s youth.

For students of public health, cyberbullying is both a specific issue to address and an issue that intersects with many other important topics. The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) offers a Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) online program focused on many of these intersecting topics, such as the health of vulnerable populations, health issues in educational settings, addictive behaviors and technology use, and public health in schools. Examining these issues and how they relate to youth experience, social interaction and health in the digital age can help public health workers understand and address the complex subject of cyberbullying.

What Is Cyberbullying?

There is no universally accepted definition of cyberbullying, but most are based on the tenets of traditional bullying. As described by the American Psychological Association:

“Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.”

The Cyberbullying Research Center further specifies the medium used to bully others in defining cyberbullying as:

“…willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”

In cyberbullying, the (deliberate, repeated) harm is inflicted through platforms like social media, instant messaging, texting and email.

What Are the Effects of Cyberbullying?

Just like traditional bullying, cyberbullying can negatively affect both a person’s emotional and physical health. Children who have been bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, as well as manifest suicidal thoughts and behavior. These negative mental health effects can lead to further troubles with issues like substance abuse. The high levels of stress these young people experience can cause many other side effects as well, from sleep disorders to gastrointestinal problems.

Interestingly, bullies also experience some of these negative effects like depression and heightened suicide risk. Plus, if bullies are punished through suspension or expulsion, their future well-being may be in jeopardy. These punishments can lead to lowered academic achievement during their school years, and, in turn, less opportunity in adult life to come.

Yet cyberbullying is distinct from traditional bullying in many ways. Cyberbullying is not limited to the classroom, household or street corner. With instant messaging and social media, children can engage with each other wherever and whenever they want. Bullying can be a part of any of those interactions.

But, importantly, the individual does not even have to be “present” or in a communication thread to be bullied. Someone may post a negative thing about another to a large audience of peers without the victim even knowing. That harmful post could then be shared and potentially exposed to a nearly unlimited audience.

Unless taken down, cyberbullying content on social media can build up and develop a negative reputation for the victim of that bullying. The harm is effectively inflicted and repeated on its own any time the content is viewed, reinforcing itself perpetually.

What Can Be Done to Prevent and Address Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is unique, and perhaps more troubling than traditional bullying, because of access and scale. Kids can cyberbully each other any time, from anywhere, and with far greater and longer-lasting reach than before. Both access and scale can also make preventing cyberbullying very difficult, along with doing anything about it when it happens.

Smart intervention is still important and often necessary. Parents and teachers can work to monitor children’s online behavior, addressing instances of cyberbullying when they happen. Schools can create and enforce anti-cyberbullying policies that work (as opposed to the often ineffectual zero-tolerance model). Healthcare providers can integrate a focus on screening for bullying experiences (and their effects) when working with children. Social media companies should institute policies and take steps to reduce the cyberbullying that occurs on their platforms. And more governmental bodies can incorporate cyberbullying policy into anti-bullying legislation.

Prevention, although not easy, is probably the most effective means of curbing cyberbullying. The digital landscape has changed the way people interact. This demands a new kind of integrative social-emotional skill set, combining empathy, self-efficacy and responsibility with digital literacy. Along with traditional anti-bullying education and social-emotional learning, children need to learn how their behavior and actions in the digital world affect others in unique and potentially long-lasting ways.

Cyberbullying is certainly an unfortunate by-product of the digital age. And it is a difficult problem to unravel, seemingly relentless with the ever-increasing influence of social media on children’s lives. But there are many resources available for students, educators, families and others who wish to challenge cyberbullying in their communities, and public health workers can play an important role in preventing and addressing it.

Learn more about UTA’s online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program.


CNN: Bullying Is a ‘Serious Public Health Problem,’ Experts Say Prevent Cyberbullying What Is Cyberbullying?

Journal of Pediatric Psychology: Commentary: Guiding a Public Health Approach to Bullying

Canadian Journal of Psychiatry: The Role of Health Care Providers in Cyberbullying

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Bullying Among Adolescents Webinar

Cyberbullying Research Center: What Is Cyberbullying?

American Psychological Association: Bullying

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