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Researcher of the Month

Cyberbullying and social connectedness

This month, we are highlighting Dr Larisa McLoughlin and her fantastic work on cyberbullying. Estimates regarding the prevalence of cyberbullying vary, but it is thought that by the end of their school careers, up to 75% of young people will have been impacted by it, either as a perpetrator, a victim (or both), or as a bystander. Cyberbullying is clearly a prevalent concern during adolescence and it is also a significant contributor to poor mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression. Establishing effective coping mechanisms and protective factors which might mitigate its negative influence is therefore vital.

Dr McLoughlin’s study investigates a small sample of 12-year-old Australian participants from the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS) to establish what impact social connectedness has on levels of wellbeing for young people with experiences of cyberbullying.

Summary

Common incidents of cyberbullying include receiving hurtful messages, having images, messages or content shared without permission and being excluded from online groups or games. For this kind of behaviour to constitute cyberbullying, there generally needs to be an intent to cause harm and for the behaviours to be repeated over time. A one off incident would not usually be classified as cyberbullying.

Frequently, young people who experience cyberbullying also cyberbully others themselves. These are known as ‘bully victims’ and research suggests these individuals experience the most severe mental health problems, with more depression and anxiety than people who are only either perpetrators or victims.

Research shows that social connectedness may act as a protective factor for mental health and wellbeing when young people experience cyberbullying. Dr McLoughlin’s paper furthers this body of research by examining the links between social connectedness, wellbeing, and cyberbullying over time.

Social connectedness is well established as an important aspect of adolescence, with higher levels typically resulting in positive mental health and wellbeing. Being socially connected means having good quality relationships, on and offline, and the knowledge that there are people who like and value us and who we can turn to for help and support.

This study analysed the participants’ personal experiences of cyberbullying, their levels of social connectedness and their wellbeing scores. It found that the negative influences of cyberbullying and cybervictimisation on wellbeing scores over time are lessened by strong levels of social connectedness.

It appears that increased social connectedness promotes positive wellbeing over time and can protect wellbeing in those experiencing cyberbullying and/or cybervictimisation.

Implications

“The results highlight the important role that social connectedness plays in promoting wellbeing in both cybervictims and cyberbullies over time.”

Implications for parents – Aim to have open and honest conversations with children about cyberbullying and promote help-seeking behaviours, before any problems crop up. Ensuring that children feel comfortable talking about their experiences online is crucial. If your child is involved in cyberbullying, think carefully before removing their devices. It may feel like you are protecting them, but you might also be denying them access to vital supportive connections. Make time to discuss positive coping strategies. 

On average, participants were not shown to have experienced multiple instances of cyberbullying or cybervictimisation. Parents should be aware that even very few experiences are linked to significant effects on wellbeing and that social connectedness and support are important regardless of the level of exposure.

Implications for schools – Dr McLoughlin notes that ‘schools should place an emphasis on the importance of connection and ensure there are a number of (social) support systems in place for students who may need it.’ Promote social connections through peer schemes, have a readily available pastoral team and make sure that young people are aware of helplines and external sources of support should they feel uncomfortable talking to friends, family or staff.

Resources Created from and Related to this Research

Dr Larisa McLoughlin, Research Fellow, University of South Australia

Dr Larisa McLoughlin has over a decade of experience conducting cyberbullying research, and is currently a Research Fellow at the Behaviour-Brain-Body Research Centre at University of South Australia. Larisa just completed four years of work at the Thompson Institute, University of the Sunshine Coast, working on the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS). LABS is collecting data using: self-report, neurocognitive assessments, neuropsychiatric interviews, MRI scans, and EEG.

Larisa has also undertaken her own research investigating the neurobiological underpinnings of cyberbullying. Her research used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to observe how the brain responds to witnessing cyberbullying. Larisa has developed CyPicS (Cyberbullying Picture Series) for use in this research. Larisa’s postgraduate work focused on cyberbullying, namely the mental health outcomes associated with it, as well as help-seeking and coping behaviours of young people. Her PhD was under a scholarship by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, and Larisa was a key team member for the Safe and Well Online Study at UniSA, led by Associate Professor Barbara Spears.

Link to article