By Dr. Claudia Black
Today’s young adults, 18 to 26 years of age, are facing an escalating mental health crisis. One in five is suffering from a diagnosable mental, emotional, and behavioral disorder. Depression, substance abuse, social anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal ideation are experienced at alarming rates for those of this young age.
While there are many contributing factors that put young people at risk for these problems, at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center we recognize one of the obvious contributors to this escalation is that these young adults have grown up with the Internet. Despite the fact that there are wonderful uses for the Internet, one of the unfortunate negatives is cyberbullying. Bullying is not new, it has been with us for many generations—most often carried out by verbal insults and humiliating actions directed toward those marginalized and perceived as different. But today that bullying has extended inward to the Internet via social media having a synergistic impact.
Definition: Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital mediums. Students may be cyberbullied on their phones, computer, tablets, and other devices by receiving harassing chats, texts, messages, comments, forum posts, and pictures that cause them emotional harm.
Cyberbullying doesn’t stop when you are out of someone’s sight. It follows you wherever the Internet is accessible and is posted for all to see. It’s no longer isolated to the small group of kids standing in the hallway or outside in the school yard who observe it, but is easily witnessed by the entire school community as well as the anonymous followers of someone‘s social media network that keep the effects of the bullying ongoing. People from thousands of miles away are now engaged in behavior that taunt the psychological and emotional safety of the bullied.
Just this week, 19-year-old Carlie came into treatment; her parents described the situation as a ‘failure to launch’. They haven’t been able to motivate her to get a job, to go or stay in school, or to even socialize with other young people. They wondered if some one thing, such as a sexual assault, occurred that they were unaware of. She said no. They question why she is different than her siblings who seem to be ‘fine’. They know she has been somewhat depressed for a long time and isn’t as social as their other children. Then they found a letter of suicidal intent on the computer and realized she was in serious trouble.
Jordan, 20-years-old, entered treatment with similar symptoms. She came out as a lesbian to her parents when she was 15. Her parents weren’t near as preoccupied with her sexual orientation as they were about her inability to move forward in life. She was isolated, depressed, and on antidepressants. When they saw marks on the back of her legs, they sought treatment for Jordan – clearly, she had a history of cutting they did not know about.
It’s more common than not that when a young adult comes to treatment there are secrets they have been hiding from their parents. Carlie’s parents were unaware that she had been bullied for the past five years. In middle school, other girls began to make disparaging comments about her looks behind her back but loud enough for her to hear. Carlie became more intimidated which seemed to excite the situation and it continued. Then their taunts escalated to comments on social media about a photo of her in a particular item of clothing she thought was cool but obviously wasn’t as suddenly there was an explosion of likes and comments posted. This resulted in more laughing and pointing at her in the school hallways.
Jordan, just like Carlie, also experienced bullying at school and, in time, on the Internet. Derogatory comments were made about her being a guy, not being good enough to be a girl, and altered pictures were posted of her on social media. Then someone hacked Jordan’s computer, stole her password, and sent out emails as if from her. The emails only fueled the false narrative her bullies were perpetuating. The hate response was overwhelming.
While females are more likely to experience cyber bullying, it’s still common for males. Timothy entered treatment for substance abuse and a suicide attempt. With a thorough assessment, it was discovered he was bullied by two older brothers throughout most of his childhood without his parent’s knowledge. This led to being bullied by his brothers’ friends and eventually to a sexual assault on the part of those who were bullying him. When altered pictures of the sexual assault were posted on social media, Timothy tried to take his life by hanging.
Depression, anxiety, self-harm, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and attempts, are all frequent outcomes to those subject to bullying. Before the victims get to this state, there is usually a decline in their academic functioning, increased social isolation, or alignment with peers who are a poor influence just for the sake of having friends. And very possibly, they have engaged in bullying acts of someone else.
A few facts:
While anyone can experience bullying, the most common targets are those perceived as different. Today, this is largely seen in the LGBT community, those on the autism spectrum, those impacted by physical challenges, and those who struggle with obesity.
Bullies will often stop their behavior temporarily when others intervene on the victim’s behalf; however, this is more difficult when bullies shift to cyberbullying since there are fewer witnesses to the attacks. Additionally, those who might speak out on behalf of a bullying victim in person may be unwilling or unable to do so over a digital medium.
- 34% have experienced bullying while on school grounds
- 28% have experienced cyberbullying
- On the average, being bullied starts at age 9
- 70% of kids K-12 have witnessed bullying taking place
- Females are two times more likely to be victims
- Young people are seven times more likely to experience bullying from people they know rather than strangers
- Cyberbullying victims are two to nine times more likely to contemplate suicide
- 58% of those bullied have not told an adult
At the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, it is paramount that we create a community of safety because many of our patients have been victimized and see the world through the eyes of fear and shame. We work to name the traumas experienced, help them to let go of internalized shame, and calm their highly dysregulated nervous system. We teach them skills to more effectively own their power, not be victimized, and to challenge any further victimization.