How cyberbullying affects your brain: study reveals

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Dr Larisa McLoughlin

Cyberbullying has a measurable impact on the brain even if you are just watching, according to world-first research from USC’s Sunshine Coast Mind and Neuroscience - Thompson Institute.

The study, published in the respected journal Human Brain Mapping, is the first to capture what occurs in the brains of young adults who witness cyberbullying – even as passive bystanders – using advanced MRI scans.

Lead author Dr Larisa McLoughlin, a USC Postdoctoral Research Fellow specialising in Youth Mental Health, said witnessing online bullying activated responses across the many regions of the brain, including those linked to social and emotional processing.

“It appears cyber-bystanders go through a complex series of emotional processing, including sadness and self-awareness, as well as hate and empathy,” Dr McLoughlin said.

“This indicates that the negative impacts of cyberbullying reach a far wider audience than just the cyberbullying victim,” she said.

Researchers also found that females had a greater response in the brain region that plays a key role in the processing of empathy.

“Females may be more empathetic cyber-bystanders than males, or more able to regulate their emotions,” Dr McLoughlin said.

The study also found that those with no prior experience of cyberbullying showed a greater response in the area of the brain responsible for feeling self-conscious.

“Participants were exposed to cyberbullying scenarios based on real-life comments on various social media platforms,” Dr McLoughlin said.

“Interestingly, participants with previous experience of cyberbullying noted that the bullying comments were not as harsh as what they had experienced in the past.

“This is despite the scenarios including comments associated with suicide – one of the more common and harmful forms of cyberbullying – along with comments on topical issues such as body image for females and masculinity for males.”

“This suggests that cyberbullying victims might have a blunted response to witnessing cyberbullying of others.

“We know that people who bully have often been bullied themselves, and understanding the factors that contribute to this is really important.”

Dr McLoughlin said the findings also aided better understanding of the behaviours of those who defend online abuse, and those who do not.

“Online bystanders play a much more complicated role than those who witness bullying in person,” she said.

“They not only have the power to contribute to bullying others by forwarding cyberbullying posts, they can be with the cyberbully when the post is made, with the cyber-victim when it is received, or witness the sharing and forwarding of bullying posts.”

The research team said the study findings could be further developed to inform cyberbullying education programs and early and appropriate interventions.

Dr McLoughlin said given the recognised links between cyberbullying and negative mental health outcomes, research into cyberbullying and the brain was imperative.

“There is limited research into links between cyberbullying and brain development in young people,” she said.

“Our research in this area is therefore vital and indicates that need for a larger study, especially into the effect of cyberbullying on adolescent brains.”

Dr McLoughlin said the Institute hoped to replicate the study to determine the effect of cyberbullying on wellbeing and the brain in younger adolescents over time.

 
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