December 01, 2013

The Psychological Impact of Cyber Bullying

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Much has been said about cyber bullying, and how social media outlets have impacted the lives of teenagers. How do these new methods of bullying and torment differ from their face-to-face counterparts? In what ways do the teenagers on the receiving end of these bullying experiences process the experiences? At The Family Institute, an organization committed to strengthening and healing families from all walks of life through clinical service, education and research, mental health clinicians consider these questions as they treat their adolescent clients and their families.

“While social media can serve to augment peer relationships in adolescence, it can also provide a forum for negative exchanges that can be quite hurtful,” says Hollie Sobel, PhD, a Family Institute clinician who specializes in treating adolescent clients and their families. 

“Teenagers can’t emotionally process these painful experiences in the same way they do their face-to-face equivalents. There aren’t the same opportunities to work it out online.”

Sobel lists ways in which these online bullying experiences are different from those that happen in high school cafeterias or parties. For example, the victim can’t see the affect on the offender, and can’t see or feel the responses of people who may come to his/her aid, rendering that aid less resonant. Additionally, while there is a lack of authority to step in, the quick pace and lack of personal contact involved in cyber bullying allows for more people to join in the taunting in active ways they may not do in person. Negative statements made online are more pervasive than those made in person, with little escape.

“Despite these differences, however, a victim’s level of assertion doesn’t vary whether the bullying occurs online or in person,” says Dr. Sobel, who runs a therapy group for adolescents at The Family Institute in Evanston, IL. “The impact is just as resonant, only these incidents happen in the isolation of the Internet where social support, which is so important for coping, is absent.”

Recognizing these nuances is important to help teenagers cope with cyber bullying. At The Family Institute, Dr. Sobel considers these issues as she provides teenagers with strategies and skills to cope with these experiences, as well as the issues of self-esteem, family relationships, peer pressure, and friendships.

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For more information about adolescent cyber bullying, the Adolescent Group Therapy Program, or The Family Institute, contact Colleen O’Connor, (312) 609-5300, ext. 485.