Cyber-bullying takes toll on teens’ mental health

Four of every five teenagers seen by the country’s biggest independent mental health service have been recent victims of cyber-bullying.

Although their underlying issues mostly relate to issues like eating disorders, anxiety disorder, substance abuse and, in rare cases, psychotic disorder, 80% of those referred to the adolescent services of St Patrick’s University Hospital (SPUH) were bullied online in the weeks or months before being referred there.

SPUH medical director Prof Jim Lucey said this kind of harassment could worsen the effect of existing mental health problems for many young people.

“The trouble is that there is no escape from cyber-bullying like there is from bullying in the school yard. The impact of things being online means there is no going back, the genie is out of the bottle,” he said.

“The magnetisation of exposure is huge because if five so-called friends are saying something bad on Facebook, they will have another 500 friends and it enlarges very quickly.”

His comments come the week after a Leitrim teena-ger took her life and as gardaí investigate bullying comments made about her on ask.fm. It has been likened to the case of Phoebe Prince, 15, from Co Clare, who took her life in the US in 2010 after a campaign of bullying at school.

Prof Lucey said cyber- bullies used three strategies:

* Taunting, name-calling, and abusive comments;

* Aggressive and threatening behaviour, including circulation of photos of the victim;

* Impersonation of somebody by creating the impression the victim has made nasty comments about others.

“It can start with something like an anonymous online poll and suddenly someone is made to believe they’re the ugliest in the class,” said Prof Lucey.

He believes schools have a role to play in battling the naivety of young people about some of the risks using social media like Facebook, Twitter, and the raft of new sites that appear every month. However, the potential impacts need to be impressed on those who bully online.

“We need to improve education around the issue, technology is moving very quickly and our response as parents, educators and clinical leaders is way behind,” Prof Lucey said.

“All schools are moving towards whiteboards and computer literacy, but with that comes the opportunity and necessity to educate young people around these issues,” he said.

“Children don’t seem to realise the impact of what they are getting involved in, they don’t have the same scepticism as adults.”

He said the reaction of some parents might be to remove phones or internet access at home if a child was being bullied, but that left them in danger of further isolation or ridicule from their peers.

John Buckley, youth engagement officer with the organisation SpunOut, said little could be done to police the internet.

“What is needed is good quality information and discussion, and young people should be able to access information online and parents need to get involved.

“The internet is no longer just on desks at home, it’s in young people’s pockets so they should have conversations with their children without being judgmental.”

Safety online

Tips for parents from SpunOut:

* Open conversations from an early age about responsible use of the internet are key. Young people are the experts and the internet is no longer based on a desktop.

* Talk to young people about the impact of words written online. Explain hurtful things have just as negative an effect online as offline.

* Build up trust with young people, so they know they have a trusted adult to talk to if they come across something online that upsets them.

* You won’t be able to control everything young people do and say, so ensure they know how to stay safe and are aware of dangers such as sharing too much information or in-person meetings with strangers they met online;

* Teach children about responsible commenting that respects others’ rights not to be harmed.

* Ensure they can block/report.

* Let young people know about supports such as www.childline.ie.

Other useful websites for parents: www.webwise.ie, www.internetsafety.ie, www.spunout.ie/health/Personal-safety

* Read more here



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