Faculty of Medicine

Lund University

Mental ill health among adolescents who are bullied and harassed online

2018-09-07

Mental ill health is extensive among young people who are subjected to bullying, online harassment and physical violence. This has been confirmed in a new thesis from Lund University. Among other things, the results show that the link between mental ill health and online harassment is evident even in isolated instances.

The mental ill health among Swedish adolescents is a major and growing problem, according to those affected, their loved ones, school staff and government reports, etc. This is also an important reason why Maria Fridh, doctor of medical science at Lund University, and physician specialising in public health at Region Skåne, chose to study the subject more closely:

“The mental ill health among so many young people is alarming. In addition to the suffering it entails in itself, problems during adolescent years can result in serious consequences later in life. This has been shown by previous research in the field.”

The thesis in question is based on several thousand responses from school pupils and young adults to Region Skåne’s public health surveys.

 The results, from four sub-studies, show that:

  • Pupils with disabilities have poorer health and are subjected to bullying and online harassment about twice as often as their classmates without disabilities. Among the pupils who are bullied, major ill health was expressed in boys primarily in the form of physical discomfort (head/stomach/back aches or dizziness) and in girls primarily in the form of mental distress (depression, anxiety, bad mood or sleep disorders). Mental ill health and exposure to bullying were most common among pupils with ADHD/ADD in a comparison between different forms of disability*. All pupils in the study were in grade nine.
  • Girls are subject to online harassment more frequently than boys. The connection to mental ill health was stronger if harassment took place on several occasions, but it is worth noting that the link is statistically sound even among adolescents who were harassed online only once during the last year. The pupils in the study were in grade nine.
  • Among adolescents with mental ill health there is a clear connection between involvement in cyberbullying and self-harm. The connection gradually grows stronger from bullies-only, victims-only, to those involved as both bullies and victims online. In the last group, more than half of the girls, and more than one in five boys, had harmed themselves. The pupils in the study were in grade nine or in year two of upper-secondary school.
  • Physical violence. One in 10 men and one in 20 women between the ages of 18 and 34 responded to the survey that they were subjected to physical violence in the last year. The women had primarily been subjected to domestic violence, whereas the men were mainly exposed to violence outside the home. The connection between being subjected to violence and mental ill health could only be identified among women.

 The results largely confirm the findings of previous studies, but there were also elements that surprised Maria Fridh:

“Among other things, I was surprised by the clear gender distinction that appeared in all four studies. It was also unexpected to find a connection between mental ill health and exposure to online harassment that occurred on only one occasion.”

 Maria Fridh’s thesis is based on statistical analyses that demonstrate different types of relationships. The research did not determine the causes of the observations.

 With regard to online harassment, Maria Fridh personally believes that the nature of the internet and its extensive reach, constant access and the ability to act anonymously contribute to the ill health of those who are victimised and harassed.

“At the same time, I also want to stress that the benefits of the internet should not be forgotten. For example, it allows like-minded people and those with special interests to connect and create a sense of community. You could say that what happens online reflects our human behaviour in general, the good and the bad.”

The thesis

Maria Fridh obtained her PhD on the subject of public health science (focusing on social medicine) with her thesis “Bullying, violence and mental distress among young people. Cross-sectional population-based studies in Scania, Sweden.” The thesis defence took place at Lund University on 1 June 2018.

Participants: The thesis consists four sub-studies based on questionnaire responses from the public health surveys in Skåne in 2008, 2012 and 2016. They include 5 900–8 500 responses from adolescents or young adults, depending on the sub-study.

Adjustment of results: The responses were adjusted to take into account socio-demographic factors (e.g. country of birth and parents’ profession), lifestyle factors (smoking, alcohol and drugs) and psychosocial factors (e.g. loneliness, communication with parents and study difficulties).

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