The Internet has impacted and changed the world as we knew it forever. It has and continues to permeate our lives, leaving its mark. Of increasing importance has been the exploration of the effect of Internet use on social and emotional health. Part of this research has been mapping out how experiences online can be either similar or different from those offline. Within this field, comparisons between online and offline bullying and its impact on social and emotional health are starting to receive more attention.
The concept of ‘Cyberbullying’ is relatively new to researchers. Exploration of the idea of cyberbullying continues, noting what makes cyberbullies different from in-person bullies. For example, cyberbullies focus their aggression more on angry words and hurtful pictures, rather than yelled taunts and raised fists. However, one thing is the same between cyberbullies and in-person bullies, their impact is still harmful to people. In my article, “Linkages between Depressive Symptomology and Internet Harassment among Young Regular Internet Users” I explored the connection between cyberbullying and depression. As one might expect, adolescents who say they are being harassed while online were more likely to report symptoms of depression than non-harassed adolescents. Moreover, a large majority of youth who said they hadn’t experienced Internet harassment also said that they had few or no symptoms of depression. When boys and girls are looked at separately, it seems that boys who are victims are particularly likely to have symptoms of major depression. We can’t say that the online harassment caused the depressive symptoms, or that the depressive symptoms caused the harassment. But the association suggests that the two things can often co-occur for some adolescents. 
Struggling with Social Cues
One of the interesting factors that may play a role in online bullying and depression is the lack of social cues in the online environment. Certainly, emoticons and text (e.g., “hehehe”; LOL) can help connote emotion, but they cannot completely replace subtle social cues such as body language or tone of voice. This makes it more difficult to interpret and make sense of social exchanges on the Web, compared to face to face situations.
Adolescents with depression already have difficulty figuring out social cues and relating to peers in the physical world. Online, they may find it even harder to read social signals. Without visual or verbal social cues, “one’s current emotional state and ability to navigate unclear social interaction becomes that much more important; and for young people with depressive symptomatology, their state of mind and generally poorer social skills may ‘skew’ the interpretation negatively.” This means that adolescents with depressive symptoms may be more likely to perceive an online situation as negative or threatening.
Bully or Victim?
Adolescents who spend more time online are more likely to be harassed. This is not surprising: you have to be online to be harassed in this environment, so the more time adolescents spend there, the greater the chance of something happening. Interestingly, adolescents who are harassed online are more likely to be harassers themselves. We often think of adolescents who are bullied as blameless, hopeless victims. What the data suggest, however, is that in many cases it’s a bi-directional situation: You are mean to me, so I am mean to you back.
It’s important that we as adults work hard to understand the circumstances surrounding harassment experiences before we respond, so that we can be sure to help the adolescents solve the problem as it actually is, as opposed to what we think it is. Not all adolescents who are depressed are harassed or bullied, and not all adolescents who are bullied or harassed are depressed.
We need to do everything we can to help adolescents who are struggling with these problems get the care and support that they need. So as parents and caregivers we can help adolescents who are experiencing major depression. There are several referral agencies that adults can reach out to on behalf of their children. The National Mental Health Information Center provides free referrals around the United States and be found at http://www.mentalhealth.gov/.
A free screening tool for depression is available at www.cesd-r.com. Working in conjunction with Dr. William Eaton at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, we, the Center for Innovative Public Health Research (CiPHR), developed the online assessment and have made it freely available to the public. Our hope is that adolescents will have access to accurate and reliable information and tools that can keep them healthy and safe.
What You Can Do
Anyone in serious distress or in danger of hurting themselves should call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
CiPHR’s website cyberbully411.org has the following tips for young people experiencing Internet harassment:
• Ignore the person. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to ignore the person and go on about your business.
• Log-off if the harassment is bothering you.
• Block or delete the person. If it is happening on Instant Messaging or some other place online that requires a ‘buddy list,’ you can block certain users based upon their username, or delete them if they are in your buddy list. You can also block emails that are being received from specific email addresses.
• Change your information. If someone has hacked into your profile, change your password. If someone repeatedly sends you messages (like, ‘add me to your buddy list’ over and over), consider changing your username or email address.
• If there is a profile that was created about you without you knowing, contact the company who runs the site to have the profile or language taken off.
• If you are upset about what is being said, talk to someone you trust. Don’t feel like you’re alone.
Learn more about our research at http://innovativepublichealth.org/
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Jennifer Renzas and Niki Hukker for their contributions to this blog.
 Ybarra, M. Linkages between Depressive Symptomology and Internet Harassment among Young Regular Internet Users. CyberPsychology & Behavior 2004:7(2), 247-258.