Advances in technology have closed the gap in communication by allowing individuals to easily interact on online platforms regardless of geographical differences or any other barriers, as long as they have access to a computerised device that can connect to the internet. Nevertheless, with the advantages of the internet has come a significant problem that has primarily affected the youth across the world, cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is bullying carried out through online platforms as opposed to traditional bullying that occurs physically or through face-to-face interaction between the bully and the victim (stopbullying.gov, n.d.). As much as conventional bullying has been associated with various negative implications, research demonstrates that cyberbullying produces worse adverse effects than it may be noted. The greater power imbalance that results from cyberbullying means that most of the victims do not know the identity of their bully, an aspect that contributes to the impact that such bullying has o the victims. Also, cyberbullies are not limited by time and space, as they can easily follow the victim into their private space (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). Cyberbullying is a rapidly growing problem that can lead to psychological issues because it is often ignored or passed off as teasing, underestimated or untreated by society, and many teens aggrandize their digital appearance.
Psychological Implications of Cyberbullying
Traditional types of bullying take place when an individual is victimized by another and exposed to harmful behaviour repeatedly, over a period of time, with an imbalance of power, to the extent that the victim feels unsafe and is unable to do anything about it (McQuade, Colt, Meyer, & Meyer, 2009). On the other hand, cyberbullying refers to the application of internet platforms to inflict harmful behaviour towards a specific person. Cyberbullying exhibits differences with traditional bullying, an aspect that makes the former more serious as aforementioned. One such factor is the fact that cyberbullying is not limited by time and thus can take place at any time of the day, including at night (McQuade, Colt, Meyer, & Meyer, 2009). This leaves the victims of such attacks hopeless and with the feeling that they cannot escape from the harassment. Moreover, cyberbullying is more devastating because harmful images and messages can be quickly shared across a large population of people. The sharing of such information may expose one to embarrassment and further harassment from other parties. Last but not least, unlike with traditional bullying where one has knowledge of their bully, an aspect that makes it easier for them to report the bully or confront them and solve the problem, most of the bullies in cyberbullying remain anonymous, an element that makes it difficult for an adult to intervene appropriately (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). As a consequence of these factors, cyberbullying victims live in constant fear of the unknown even as they can only anticipate the next steps of the bully while they have nothing that they can do about it.
In most cases, young people do not report cases of cyberbullying to adults or other parties that are capable of helping them (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). Instead, they pass such cases of bullying as teasing or ignore them. Like traditional bullying, this kind of harassment exposes victims to various consequences, including psychological problems. On the one hand, exposure of young people to cyberbullying results in feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, helplessness, as well as depression (Kowalski, Limber, & Agatston, 2008). This is a significant problem among adolescents and young adults because these stages of life are associated with identity development, a process that is highly influenced by the individual’s environment. As compared to victims of traditional approaches of bullying, cyberbullying victims are exposed to more significant long-term psychological and sociological consequences (Bottino, Bottino, Regina, Correia, & Ribeiro, 2015). In some cases, young individuals carry various symptoms of sociological, mental, and psychological issues into adulthood. In a study carried out by Albin (2012) on bullying, the author established that both the perpetrators and the victims of cyberbullying have a four times higher chance to of engaging in crime as compared to individuals who were not involved in bullying either as perpetrators or victims.
A major area of consideration in the exploration of the consequences of cyberbullying on the psychological wellbeing of the involved persons is the “online self”. According to Silvashanker (2013), the concept of a digital or online self is critically influenced by cyberbullying. In this case, the online self involves pictures, contacts, comments, and quotes of an individual that are shared online. In cases where one is exposed to cyberbullying, their digital self comes under attack and may be destroyed, considered from their perspective. This results in feelings of depression and lack of worth, which may lead to isolation, and in worst cases suicidal thoughts. In most cases, the process of recovering from such attacks is impeded by continued exposure of the victim to such challenges (Taylor, 2018). In the current society, where most youths are internet savvy and more likely to be connected to social media sites and other online chatrooms via computerized devices, individuals are more exposed to cyberbullying. Rumours spread across online platforms and through instant messaging platforms, including fake profiles associated with embarrassing details, and embarrassing videos and photos are likely to result in depression and dissociation symptoms among the victims, an aspect that leads to suicidal thoughts.
In cases where the victims of cyberbullying have experienced emotional abuse in the past cyberbullying is likely to exacerbate related mental health conditions. In a study conducted by Bottino, Bottino, Regina, Correia, and Ribeiro (2015), the authors noted that various mental health and psychosocial problems were compared among both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying. Some of the common issues identified among those involved in cyberbullying include depressive symptoms, substance abuse, social anxiety, emotional stress, suicidal attempts and suicidal ideation. The authors also noted that cyberbullying was associated with specific negative emotional responses including emotions such as fear, stress, worry, upset, and anger (Bottino, Bottino, Regina, Correia, & Ribeiro, 2015).
The stress generation model of depression posits that persons with symptoms of depression are likely to contribute to further development of stress within their lives (McQuade, Colt, Meyer, & Meyer, 2009). As such, in the context of this paper, it is possible to argue that people with depressive symptoms may create a ground for their victimization. As such, the relationship between cyberbullying and depression is reciprocal, such that individuals are exposed to the development of depressive symptoms as a result of cyberbullying, while those who are depressed are likely to expose themselves to being targeted by cyberbullies (McQuade, Colt, Meyer, & Meyer, 2009). In most cases, young individuals who demonstrate symptoms of depression exhibit lesser social skills and tend to isolate themselves, making themselves less attractive to their peers, an aspect that increases their chances of being victimized by others and cyberbullied. As a result of the cyberbullying, such individuals further increase their depressive symptoms as they experience heightened loneliness, accompanied by feelings of rejection and sadness (McQuade, Colt, Meyer, & Meyer, 2009).
Anxiety is another common psychological problem among cyberbullying victims. Such victims remain in a permanent state of nervousness and worry even as they fear the next actions that are likely to be taken by their bullies (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). For example, when a bully uploads embarrassing pictures of a victim, the victim naturally becomes more anxious even as he or she remains unaware of what else the bully is holding against him or her and how the bully plans to use it. In cases of young people such as adolescents, some of the shared images or videos, such as pictures of them taking alcohol or engaging in other forms of deviant behaviour cause anxiety among them as they do not know how their parents, guardians, or law enforcement agencies will react to them. Anxiety can result in the development of compulsive behaviours, such as suicide.
Apart from anxiety and depression, low self-esteem is another psychological problem that is experienced by victims of cyberbullying (Darrin, 2017). Self-esteem refers to the unfavourable or favourable attitude that one may have towards themselves. Such is a critical determinant of one’s psychological and emotional well-being as well as stress levels. Given that cyberbullying is a stress factor for the victims, it is likely to affect their self-esteem negatively. As a consequence, cyberbullying victims are likely to have less confidence in and respect for themselves, losing interest in their self-worth, an aspect that is highly likely to lead to behaviours such as isolation and suicide (Darrin, 2017).
Substance abuse is also a significant consequence of cyberbullying among young individuals. Some individuals are likely to yield to the pressure of cyberbullying, resorting to substance abuse as a way of getting away from their peers (Hurley, 2018). Also, some of the victims of cyberbullying may engage in substance abuse as a way of fitting into the groups that isolate or bully them. Some of the victims may also use substances as a way to treat themselves of the various symptoms of being bullied, including anxiety and depression. Nevertheless, substance abuse is more common among the perpetrators of bullying as compared to the victims (Selkie, Kota, Chan, & Moreno, 2015). Mostly, individuals who exhibit aggressive behaviour during their youth align themselves with peers who show the same behaviour, an aspect that opens them to the possibility of engaging in other forms of deviant behaviour. As such, cyberbullies are likely to end up in the company of other bullies and those who are less governed by rules.
On the other hand, some of the bullies are pushed into acting aggressively by their underlying mental conditions, an aspect that may result in their use of drugs as a way of coping with such conditions (Selkie, Kota, Chan, & Moreno, 2015). Problem drinking is one of the common consequences of bullying for victims, especially young adults, whereby they turn to alcohol to cope with the feelings that follow bullying experiences. On the other hand, bullies are likely to consume alcohol for the same reasons that they would turn to substance use (Selkie, Kota, Chan, & Moreno, 2015).
The social cognitive theory provides a framework that can be used to adequately understand the impact that cyberbullying has on the psychosocial well-being of the involved persons. According to the theory, the functioning of human beings is as a result of an interaction between environmental, behavioural, and personal influences (Xiao & Wong, 2013). As such, personal factors such as biological, affective, and cognitive events and environmental factors including stressful environments and peer support both influence the development of behaviour among individuals. With regards to cyberbullying, one of the personal factors that inform the effect that such bullying has on the psychological well-being of the victims is internet self-efficacy (Xiao & Wong, 2013). In this case, self-efficacy involves the judgment that individuals make concerning their capacity to organize given courses of action and effectively execute them to achieve certain performances. Individuals engage in the activities in which they perceive higher levels of self-efficacy, while they tend to avoid engaging in actions in which they have low self-efficacy. Cyberbullies target the self-efficacy of their victims, destroying the confidence that individuals have within themselves in the virtual environment, leading to the development of stress and feelings of helplessness, which are transferred into the physical world and transformed into retrogressive behaviour (Xiao & Wong, 2013). This explains the development of loneliness and isolation among victims of cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts and attempts among those who perceive that they have lost control.
An essential part of the social cognitive theory that is important to understanding the impact that cyberbullying has on the behaviour of victims, including suicidal behaviour involves the role played by environmental factors to inform behaviour. As such, it is critical to understand that human behaviour is primarily influenced by their environment, including their peers and those that interact with across different platforms and forums (Xiao & Wong, 2013). While some of the influence that individuals get from interaction with other persons may be progressive and result in the development of good behavioural inclinations, other forms of influence are reductive and lead to the development of retrogressive behaviour. In the case of cyberbullying, the negativity that individuals receive from their bullies may have a significant impact on their perception of self-worth and the relationships that they have with others, leading to the development of retrogressive behaviour such as isolation and suicidal behaviour (Xiao & Wong, 2013).
As much as cyberbullying is a recent phenomenon, its adverse consequences and prevalence have been widely documented through research across the world. Even as more youths tend to use the internet and computerized devices across the globe, cyberbullying is an area that is bound to grow even further. Victims of cyberbullying experience high levels of social anxiety, emotional instability, and high distress as a consequence of the actions that are taken against them by their bullies including the sharing of images, videos, comments, and quotes against the victim. For victims of cybersecurity, such outcomes majorly affect their psychosocial well-being and may result in extreme responses such as physical harm or suicide. This is a problem as such bullying may occur for a prolonged period as the bully may remain anonymous while perpetrating online activity against the victim. Moreover, cyberbullying provides the bully with an opportunity to bully the victim throughout, without time limits as it is the case with traditional bullying. As such, this paper reiterates that cyberbullying is a rapidly growing problem that can lead to psychological issues because it is often ignored or passed off as teasing, underestimated or untreated by society, and many teens aggrandize their digital appearance.
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