Panel discusses emotional, psychological effects of cyberbullying

Friday, February 10, 2012 | 2:41 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — "You can't escape cyberbullying. It has more of a reach than traditional bullying," said Melissa Holt, counseling psychologist and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Education.

She spoke Friday morning during a panel discussion about the psychological and emotional effects of cyberbullying on youth. The discussion took place during the second day of the Missouri Law Review Symposium, which is named "Cyberbullying: Emerging Realities and Legal Challenges."

Holt was one of the three speakers on the panel that also included Philip Rodkin, associate professor at University of Illinois College of Education, and Mark A. Small, professor of psychology at Clemson University Department of Psychology.

Rodkin defined bullying as an unfair and undemocratic act — an abuse of power by somebody of higher status directed towards someone of a lower status. He said it's important to differentiate between aggression and bullying.

"The paradox of aggressive behavior is that it is simultaneously adaptive and maladaptive," he said. "Bullying is about social capital, and not just physical power."

Bullies are usually concerned with being or becoming more popular with their peers, particularly in regards to the children they harass. Bullies seek to attain a relationship of control, he said.

Bullies also tend to have two social worlds, "marginalized and connected," according to Rodkin. The bullies are either relatively popular and have their behavior enforced by passive bystanders, or they perform acts of bullying as a way of attaining approval of their peers, he said.

Rodkin stressed that being engaged in what goes on in the social networks at school, the community and cyberspace, is what will prevent these environments from becoming adaptive for bullies.

Small echoed the idea of using a community approach as a tactic of preventing bullying.

"Currently there a lot of limits to using law as a behavioral instruments in prevention of bullying," he said. "The foundation for a legal duty to protect children flows from the moral norms of the community."

While Small said he thinks adapting a community approach would be the most efficient way of combating bullying, he raised concerns over the state of connectedness of modern communities.

"Community responsibility for children protection has eroded over the years," he said.

"There are alarming trends that we are not as connected as we used to be,"  Small said. "The formal and informal systems have weakened."

The studies Holt presented explored the psychological effects of cyberbullying on youth, and the way those effects differ in regards to traditional bullying.

"It's a relatively new field that has been studied less in terms of psychological functioning," Holt said.

However, research suggests that associations between cyberbullying and mental health are distinct, she said. Cyberbullying has an impact on mental health that goes beyond other victimization areas, Holt said.

"Cyberbullying is independently associated with depression, even after considering traditional bullying victimization," she said.

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