New Study Says Kids’ Online Harassers Likely to Be Close and Former Friends

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In a new study, victims told researchers that the incidents destroyed their self-esteem and made them feel depressed, lonely and hurt.

Children are much more likely to experience cyber harassment at the hands of people they have close relationships with, reports new research.

In the study, soon to be published in Social Psychology Quarterly, researchers surveyed nearly 800 New York public school students between 8th and 12th grades and found that 17 percent of them said they’d been involved in some type of cyber aggression – defined as online behavior intended to harm another person or damage his or her reputation -- in the past week. Twenty-one percent of the cyber bullying occurred between friends, and another 25 percent between friends of friends. Teenagers who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender were more than four times more likely to be victims of cyber aggression than their peers.

Facebook was the chief venue for the unpleasant encounters, followed closely by cruel texts. Victims told researchers that the incidents destroyed their self-esteem and made them feel depressed, lonely and hurt.

Situations in which a friendship or relationship goes south and leads to harassing behavior “has been going on forever, but now it’s being taken into the electronic world,” explains Ann M. Lagges, Ph.D., clinical psychology and co-chief of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

This paper is one of the first to examine the overlap between friendship, dating and cyber aggression. One of the study’s most significant findings is that although close friendships seem protective, they actually increase children’s risk of cyber aggression victimization – kids are six times as likely to be cyber bullied by kids they were friends with compared with peers they were never friends with. The risk is sevenfold when teens have been romantically involved.

“There are concrete things that can be done to combat cyberbullying, such as deleting offensive comments and blocking people who aren’t behaving,” Lagges says. “But one of the biggest pitfalls I’ve seen teenagers run into is when people mistreat them but they’re still considering them friends. That’s part of a broader conversation parents need to have with their kids.” If young people are reluctant to block a person who’s mistreating them, she says, for example, parents should find out why.

“Regardless of the type of mess they’re running into on social media, you might need to pull the plug temporarily,” she suggests, like restricting their access to the Internet if the harassment gets bad.

However, it’s a fine line between healthy, informed parenting and helicoptering over your child’s every move online, she says. If kids aren’t showing signs of stress and depression – such as irritability and weepiness, a drop in their grades or difficulty sleeping or eat, “Don’t worry too much about it,” she says.

That said, do talk to kids about healthy ways to handle jealousy, competition and hurt feelings, she says, because they might not be as obvious to them as you assume. Many kids who reported they bullied peers online said they hadn’t realized how much harm they’d caused until later, says Diane Felmlee, a sociologist and lead author of the study.

“Internet abuse is so easy to do, because you don’t see the victim and their response,” she says. “You can’t see they’re in pain, which makes it potentially more harmful.”

-- By Virginia Pelley

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