by 26Health Staff

Cyberbullying: Our Life Online

The online world comprised of social media and video games is rapidly reshaping the way we develop our identities and interact with others. As a result, we are experiencing greater social isolation due to lack of face-to-face interactions. Discrimination and cyberbullying are gaining strength in our society and we are losing our ability to think critically and process information. During the COVID -19 pandemic, we are relegated to spend more time at home, and are therefore experiencing greater amounts of time in front of the computer screen. This situation invites us to increase our participation in social media and video games during our leisure time. However, we need to be aware of potential hazards to our mental health due to this increased exposure.

Today, around 7-in-10 Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information, and entertain themselves. As more Americans have adopted social media, the social media user base has also grown more representative of the broader population. Young adults were among the earliest social media adopters and continue to use these sites at high levels, but usage by older adults has increased in recent years. These outlets are giving us greater opportunities to connect with others, learn new information, and express ourselves to a wider audience that includes participants all over the world. Nevertheless, there are a number of risks that can take place if we do not employ proper criteria and safety when accessing these outlets:

1.     It can harm our ability to foster interpersonal relationships due to lack of in-person contact.

2.     It can affect our productivity when we employ it as a distraction. Indeed, the same device that we use for work or study is our source of distraction and entertainment. In some cases, we can even develop an addiction to the Internet.

3.     It exposes us to harassment, bullying, and rumor spreading.

4.     It can lead us to generate unrealistic views of both ourselves and others, including negatively affecting our own self-esteem through comparison. A skewed sense of reality can cause body image issues that may later be expressed through bulimia or anorexia. Young people tend to be more susceptible to peer pressure which may explain why both social media and long video game sessions are correlated with higher rates of adolescent depression and anxiety and behaviors such as frequency of posting selfies, focus on number of followers, and increased time spent on social media, have all been correlated with narcissism.

5.     Extended periods of time in front of the computer screen can affect our sleep, weight management, a mood regulation. The number of hours we spend on social media or playing video games is time that we take away from sleep and physical activity. Several studies have found that playing violent video games reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex and a person’s ability to regulate one’s mood and behavior.

6.     It affects our attention and ability to process information. Both television viewing and video game playing have been found to decrease attention spans among children, adolescent, and young adults. The faster images change on the screen, the more the stress response is triggered, with younger children having a far more noticeable response. In connection to this, children who reported more than 2 hours per day of screen time had lower scores on language and reasoning tests.

The sum of all these risks can be highly detrimental to our mental health.

One of the most significant hazards that we need to be aware of when we are online is cyberbullying. It can affect us and/or our loved ones if we are not able to detect its presence. Because of technology, bullying is no longer limited to schoolyards or street corners. Cyberbullying can occur anywhere, even at home, via smartphones, emails, texts, and social media, 24 hours a day, with potentially hundreds of people involved. It uses digital technology to harass, threaten, or humiliate. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying doesn’t require face-to-face contact and isn’t limited to just a handful of witnesses at a time. It also doesn’t require physical power or strength in numbers. With a few clicks the humiliation can be witnessed by hundreds or even thousands of people online.

95% of teens in the U.S. are online, and the vast majority access the internet on their mobile device, making it the most common medium for cyber bullying. In this regard, 23% of students reported that they’ve said or done something mean or cruel to another person online. 27% reported that they’ve experienced the same from someone else. Furthermore, 60% of young people have witnessed online bullying. Unfortunately, most do not intervene. As a result, young people who experience cyberbullying are at a greater risk than those who don’t for both self-harm and suicidal behaviors. Only 1-in-10 teen victims will inform a parent or trusted adult of their abuse.

It is important to stress that cyberbullying not only affects adolescents. Indeed, A new, nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 4,248 U.S. adults finds that 41% of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online, and an even larger share (66%) has witnessed these behaviors directed at others. Nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking. Harassment is often focused on personal or physical characteristics. Political views, gender, physical appearance and race are among the most common.

Another risk that exists when we live our lives online is Internet Addiction. Among common net compulsions we have: Cyber (Online) Relationship Addiction, Compulsive Information Seeking, and Computer or Gaming Addiction. Internet Addiction is becoming more common due to a Triple A factor: Accessibility, Availability, and Affordability. It can cause a major effect to life at home due to a decrease in interaction with our family members. Also, as stated before, it can affect our productivity by spending excessive time in pleasure seeking activities.

The last risk that this article is going to address is the effect of online activities on critical thinking. Indeed, social media became the top news source for 62% of adults in the US. However, information posted on social media is not always filtered through fact checking. In this respect, the ability of people to discern reliable information from unreliable information is blurring. In addition, information in social media caters to our emotions more than to our intellect. In this respect, we are encouraged to utilize emojis to respond to the information posted on it. But, clicking the like button, or using an emoji only ask us to categorize how information makes us feel. Information presented through images do not allow us to utilize our intellect in an effective manner. Indeed, the brain can process visual images 60,000 times faster than it can process words. This is problematic to our critical competency in our information society.

It is important to understand that we do have control over this. And we have the responsibility to increase safety online for ourselves and our loved ones. It is indeed possible to reduce the amount of time we spend in front of a screen. It is also paramount to foster a culture of critical thinking and criteria building at home to properly filter information, and to spot cyberbullying. In this respect, this requires us to increase the channels of communication with our loved ones to gain greater knowledge on how they interact online. This will make it easier for them to share and inform if they are victims of cyberbullying, or if they are struggling academically, occupationally, or even physically, due to online behaviors.

Technology is a means for our growth. But, the choice on how we use it lies with us.