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Cyberbullying & Substance Use

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According to the Megan Meier Foundation—a foundation created by Tina Meier after her 13-year-old daughter, Megan, took her own life as a result of being cyberbullied—approximately 34 percent of all school-aged kids have endured cyberbullying at some point in their lives.

While many people think of this type of bullying as strictly a teenage issue, one study conducted by Pew Research Center found that cyberbullying isn’t something that stops upon high school graduation. In fact, as many as 40 percent of adult internet users indicate that they’ve been bullied in one way or another while they were online.

What Is Cyberbullying?

The Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) defines cyberbullying as a “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Thus, in order for someone’s actions to be considered cyberbullying, they must be:

  • Intentional,
  • Occur more than once,
  • Cause harm to someone else (whether actual or perceived), and
  • Be conducted via a technologically-based source.

It is the fourth element—the technological source—that distinguishes cyberbullying from other types of bullying, some of which include physical, verbal, and sexual.

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How Cyberbullying Happens

Kids Safety explains that there are several different “forms” of cyberbullying or ways that one person can bully another online. Each one is designed to impact the victim in a different way.

Some of the most common forms include:

  • Excluding the victim from activities, conversations, or social network sites so they feel socially isolated and alone.
  • Harassing the victim via abusive and/or threatening messages, causing them to fear the person doing the cyberbullying.
  • Dissing the victim by sharing something personal about them, the intent being to damage their reputation or damage their relationships with others.
  • Outing the victim (sharing a piece of extremely private information) in an attempt to humiliate them. Sometimes, the cyberbully gathers this information through trickery by first gaining the victim’s trust in an effort to extract the information for release.
  • Cyberstalking the victim, causing them to feel as is if their physical safety is compromised. This fear can be real or perceived.
  • Fraping the victim, which involves impersonating the victim by signing in to their online accounts, then posting something that could damage their reputation or otherwise put them in harm’s way.
  • Catfishing, or setting up fake accounts with the victim’s information and images, then posting things on these accounts that will likely damage their reputation.
    Sometimes the cyberbully’s identity is known by the victim, especially if they use their own online presence to attack the victim. Other times, the cyberbully may choose to set up a fake profile to hide who they are.

It’s also possible that the cyberbully doesn’t know the victim personally. This occurs in cases of “trolling,” which is when someone goes online with the intent of provoking a response by commenting on social media posts and in online forums in an effort to degrade or destroy the original poster’s credibility or self-esteem. Thus, anyone who spends time online is a potential cyber victim.

The Impact Of Cyberbullying

How does cyberbullying impact the person being victimized? Research published by the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy reveals many negative consequences sustained by victims of cyberbullying.

These include:

  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety
  • Reduced feelings of self-worth
  • Difficulties sleeping and increased bed-wetting events
  • A higher number of physical issues such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Increased suicide attempts (a Yale study found that victims of bullying are thought to be “two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children”)

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health also found that for girls specifically, eating disorders are often more prevalent when they are involved in a bullying relationship.

Warning Signs Of Cyberbullying

How do you know if someone you love is the victim of cyberbullying? Other than asking them outright and having them admit that they’re being bullied online, there are warning signs to watch for that could potentially indicate that cyberbullying is taking place.

These include:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • No longer participating in activities that he or she once enjoyed
  • A decline in academic performance
  • Doesn’t want to go to school, or downright refuses to go
  • Changes in sleeping or appetite
  • Noticeable changes in mood or behavior, especially after using a computer or phone

Although none of these on their own is a tried-and-true reason to believe that someone is being cyberbullied, there may be a reason to investigate the situation if you notice a number of these together.

Why Do People Cyberbully?

What causes one person to bully another online? According to Joseph Magliano, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language and Literacy at Northern Illinois University, the answer to this question involves factors that are “multiple and complex.”

However, based on research in the field, Magliano says that people who cyberbully often:

  • Have difficulty feeling empathy for others
  • Use cyberbullying to feel more powerful than they think they are
  • Bully online in an attempt to gain popularity
  • Think that their peers are engaging in this behavior, so they do it too
  • Have poorer parent-child relationships
  • Are not monitored by a parental unit while online

A 2010 study published by the Archives of General Psychiatry also found that cyberbullies tend to be more hyperactive and have conduct-related issues. Interestingly, many cyberbullies also reported not feeling safe while at school.

Who Is Most At Risk Of Being Cyberbullied?

In addition to analyzing those who perpetrated the cyberbullying, the aforementioned 2010 study also looked at those who were being bullied.

The traits that they found most frequently in cyber victims include having the appearance of certain behavioral difficulties (such as hyperactivity or trouble paying attention), suffering from emotional issues, and having peer problems. The study also found that teens who were “living in a family with other than 2 biological parents” were also cyberbullied at a higher rate.

The CRC adds that females are cyberbullied more often than males. In total, 36.3 percent of the 2,096 females they studied (all between the ages of 12 and 17) said they had been a victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lives. This compared to 30.7 percent of the 2,135 males who participated in the survey.

Race can be a factor as well. One study found that bullying, in general, is directed toward African American and Native American students at a higher rate.

The Cyberbully-Victim

In some cases, the cyberbully has been a victim him or herself. The 2010 Archives of General Psychiatry study found this exact situation: while 4.8 percent of their participants were cyber victims and 7.4 percent were cyberbullying, 5.4 percent were actually both.

The study published in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy found this to be the case about 50 percent of the time as well. It further indicated that individuals who are cyberbully-victims typically suffer more negative consequences than someone who is solely a cyberbully or cyber victim.

These consequences often include:

  • Higher rates of depression
  • Increased reports of anxiety
  • Engaging in more self-harming behaviors
  • Lower feelings of self-worth
  • Reduced academic performance
  • Lower levels of self-control
  • Feeling rejected by peers

Cyberbullying Linked to School Bullying

Studies have also found that adolescents who are cyberbullied have a greater risk of being personally bullied while at school. For instance, in 2016, the CRC surveyed 4,503 teens between the ages of 12 and 17. After analyzing their responses, they discovered that 83 percent of those cyberbullied within the previous month had also been bullied at school. This correlation was confirmed by those who perform the bullying, with 69 percent admitting that they bullied their victims both places.

How Is Cyberbullying Connected To Substance Use?

Part of what makes cyberbullying so damaging is the short- and long-term effects it can have on the victims. And, in many cases, cyberbullying can lead to substance use—but what’s the connection?

Research has found a correlation between early-age bullying and substance use in later years. For instance, a 2011 study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that when boys are bullied at the age of 8, they were more likely to be heavy smokers when they reached the age of 18. The study also found that they had higher incidences of taking illicit drugs, too.

Other studies have noted that alcohol use in particular also tends to occur more simultaneously with being bullied. A 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescence found that 21 percent of those involved in bullying admitted to drinking, compared to 13 percent who were not involved in bullying. They were also more likely to have consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days. A study of female college students discovered similar results, concluding that those who were self-admitted cyberbullies “had increased odds of both depression and problem alcohol use.”

Researchers at Ohio State University reported similar findings with regard to marijuana. In a study involving 74,247 students enrolled in schools in Franklin County, Ohio, they learned:

  • 11.4 percent of the middle school bullies admitted to using marijuana, an amount that was seven times higher than those who reported that they weren’t bullies (1.6 percent).
  • For the bullies currently in high school, 31.7 percent admitted to using this particular drug. This was approximately 2.5 times higher than those who didn’t participate in bullying activities (13.3 percent).

What causes young individuals to turn to smoke, alcohol, or drugs, whether immediately or later in life? Some experts suspect that the drugs are used by victims to help them cope with the depression and anxiety brought on by the bullying behaviors. Others suggest that drug use and bullying may satisfy the same goals, such as becoming more popular with the “in crowd.”

Treating Cyberbullying and Drug Use: A Two-Fold Issue

When cyberbullying and drug use occur simultaneously, it can compound treatment because both issues need to be treated in order for the person to fully recover. Therefore, the most effective treatment remedies would cover both issues, which generally involves co-occurring disorder treatment option.

Dual diagnosis is a phrase that simply means that two issues are occurring at the same time. In other words, if you treat the substance use but not the effects of the cyberbullying (the depression, anxiety, and any other mental health repercussions), you’re only remedying half of the problem. The same is true if you address the effects of the cyberbullying, but not the substance use.

Depending on which drugs are used and the resulting mental health issues, different forms of treatment may be chosen. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Inpatient or outpatient treatment
  • Behavioral counseling
  • Individual and/or group therapy
  • Prescription medications
  • Holistic or alternative treatment remedies

Additional Ways To Deal With Cyberbullying

If you’re a victim of cyberbullying, there are specific actions you can take to help you better handle the cyberbully.

The first is to change your social media accounts to private so no one can post on them without your prior approval. This can also stop cyberbullies from tagging you in their malicious posts.

Also, save any messages you receive and screenshot any online posts directed at you so you have them as evidence of the cyberbullying. Then, take them to someone you trust or take them directly to the police. It may be tempting to respond or retaliate, but it’s best to not do either as these actions can sometimes make the cyberbullying even worse.

Of course, preventing cyberbullying is best as it stops all of these types of issues before they can even start. One way to do this is to block the cyberbully (or the potential cyberbully) from even being able to contact you. Put this block on their email address as well as their cell phone number so they can’t reach you either way. And if you’re currently friends on social media, unfriend them or unfollow them so they don’t have easy access to your online profile.

How To Help Someone Being Cyberbullied

If you know of someone who is involved in cyberbullying, shares several actions you can take that may offer some help.

For parents specifically, these actions include:

  • Talking openly with your kids so they feel more comfortable sharing issues related to cyberbullying
  • Seeking family counseling if you believe cyberbullying is occurring, yet your child won’t discuss it
  • Offering “clear, consistent discipline” so your children know that cyberbullying is not acceptable and will result in specific consequences
  • Reinforcing the development of a child’s positive values, like having empathy for others
  • Reinforcing the child’s positive attributes and accomplishments, thereby increasing his or her self-esteem and self-worth while also empowering them to gain control over the
  • situation and/or report the cyberbully
  • Not drinking or using drugs yourself, reducing the likelihood that they’ll do the same
  • Getting to know the children your child hangs out with and limiting contact with those that exhibit cyberbullying behaviors
  • Encouraging higher academic performance as this can serve as a “protective factor” against cyberbullying and substance use
  • Being on the lookout for cyberbullying behaviors, which can partially be accomplished by closely monitoring your child’s social media accounts

As long as the internet exists, cyberbullying will also likely exist in some form or another. However, that doesn’t mean that it has to be encouraged or tolerated. And if you’re a victim of cyberbullying, there is always someone there to help you, no matter what type of help you need.