Cyberbullying or online harassment often stems from the misuse of social networking sites, and is now recognized as a serious public health issue. Victims of cyberbullying, when ousted online for being gay or humiliated on Twitter, could suffer severe feelings of isolation and distress.
It is natural to feel empathy towards a victim of cyberbullying.
But what about cyberbullies themselves? Should they be ousted and shamed for their actions? Or should they be helped as they may too suffer mental health problems, which are often similar to those of their victims?
In my pursuit to better understand this phenomenon as a health researcher, I have conducted group interviews with college students to learn about their experiences with cyberbullying. One student in particular admitted to creating a social media account using an alias and tormenting a woman who had been a bully several years ago.
We know that cybervictims struggle with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. The media has covered extreme cases of cyberbullying that have resulted in suicide, such as the case of Jessica Logan, who felt so distraught when her ex-boyfriend sent her nude photos to hundreds of teenagers that she took her own life.
We also know that bullies may be perceived as callous.
However, research shows that cyberbullies may be in need of help as well. Cyberbullies struggle with higher levels of depression, stress, and anxiety when compared to students not involved in such victimization.
In other words, they are distressed.
Cyberbullies may suffer from mental health issues because they were likely victimized in the past, and have lingering emotional trauma. Victims may lash out and become bullies in retaliation.
In fact, students who fall into the category of victim-bullies often endure worse health outcomes.
In a recent study of college students, both bullies and victim-bullies showed increased chances for depression. What is more, bullies were also over four times more likely to have problem alcohol behaviors.
Victimization is a cycle and is not easily forgotten. In my experience, I have found that “hurt people hurt people.”
So, how should we handle the cyberbullies?
While there is some discussion about criminalizing cyberbullying, others believe that rehabilitation is a more sustainable approach.
While this debate will likely continue into the future, we need to start thinking about best strategies. We know that aggressive personalities can develop from exposure to childhood abuse and hostility. We should, therefore, take it upon ourselves to stop the cycle. Instead of focusing on only helping the victims, we should remember that cyberbullies may have once been a victim, too.
After all, only 11% of teens report cyberbullying to a parent for fear of appearing immature. If victims don’t receive adequate counseling, they may take matters into their own hands and retaliate.
This needs to be addressed so the victims don’t become cyberbullies themselves. Research shows cyberbullies are more likely to be involved in drug crimes and in aggressive actions. It is better to take steps early on, so as to prevent any more serious criminal action later.
This is not to say that cyberbullies should escape consequences, especially in extreme cases of repeated, severe harassment. There needs to be accountability when it comes to one’s behavior.
The way we treat cyberbullies could help send a clear message. We could choose to communicate that they are unwanted and isolate them, or we could set standards for acceptable behavior and help them achieve it.
Of course, we cannot minimize the seriousness of cyberbullying and how destructive it is, in the first place. But the problem of cyberbullying cannot be solved, unless we address the issues of the victimizers as well.