The Cold, Hard Facts of Cyber Cruelty

With technology now the primary mode of communication for teenagers, parents and health care providers can't tune out the facts about cyberbullying.

The recent wave of technological advancements has transformed the way people conduct business, practice medicine, and communication. Unfortunately, it has also changed the way children and adolescents harass and bully each other, according to a presentation given Thursday, Oct. 28 at the AACAP 57th Annual Meeting in New York, NY.

Cyberbullying, according to Ruth Gerson, MD, of the New York University Child Study Center in Brooklyn, NY, is defined as intentional, targeted harm inflicted through text or images sent via Internet, cell phones or other communication devices. It is an issue that needs to be on every provider’s radar, she said, considering the following facts:

  • Teenagers in the US spend more than 50 hours per week using some form of electronic media
  • 75% of teenagers own a cell phone
  • 93% of teenagers go online (63% on a daily basis)
  • 54% teenagers text at least 50 messages per day or 1,500 texts per month, with one-third of teenagers texting more than 100 times per day
  • Text messaging surpassed face-to-face communication as top mode of communication among teens
  • 73% of teenagers use social networking
  • 8% of teenagers use Twitter, which enables to send a message that quickly reaches the cell phones of hundreds of users
  • 38% of teenagers post photos, movies, songs or writings online (includes videos of people posted without their knowledge)
  • Teenage girls are much more likely to use social networking than boys (70% compared to 54%)
  • Teenage boys post fewer photos online but more videos than girls
  • Younger teens take, send, and receive more photos on their cell phone than older teenagers
  • Older teens are more likely to send and receive sexually explicit communications; many do so because they feel pressured by their partner
  • Up to 73% kids report being victims of cyberbullying; up to 32% say they have been repeatedly and chronically harassed
  • 16-24% youths admit to bullying others online, and the frequency appears to be increasing significantly over time

The statistics on cyberbullying are extremely sobering, said Gerson, particularly since technology is now the primary mode of communication for teenagers, making it easier than ever for children to harass and bully someone without speaking a word to them or even seeing their face. “Kids are doing it without thinking of the consequences,” she said. “And since bullies don’t see the person, they are less likely to feel guilt and will keep doing.”

Children who are victimized by cyberbullying report feeling “upset, embarrassed, anxious, and afraid to go to school,” and are at an increased risk for depressive symptoms, are more likely to use alcohol and cigarettes, have more academic problems, and experience greater somatic symptoms including headaches and poor sleep. And the perpetrators don’t fare much better, as they tend to experience higher levels of mood disturbance and substance abuse, and display greater physical and sexual aggression.

Although much more research is needed on this topic, what has been shown is that children and teenagers who spend more time online are more likely to be affected by cyberbullying, and that those with less access to text messaging are less likely to engage in sexting.

Therefore, said Gerson, it is critical that parents are aware of how their children are using technology, and that they work with children and health care providers to deal with any adverse issues that arise.