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"One in five adolescents experience cyberbullying," Frank Elgar, a professor at the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal, said in a university news release.
"Many adolescents use social media, and online harassment and abuse are difficult for parents and educators to monitor, so it is critical to identify protective factors for youths who are exposed to cyberbullying," said Elgar, who is also a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health Institute.
He and his colleagues examined how family meals -- which provide social contact and support -- might help reduce the mental health impact that cyberbullying can have on teens.
The study included more than 20,000 adolescents in Wisconsin who were asked about their experiences with face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying, and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
"We found that emotional, behavioral, and substance use problems are 2.6 to 4.5 times more common among victims of cyberbullying. And these impacts are not due to face-to-face bullying; they are specific to cyberbullying," Elgar said.
The link between cyberbullying and these problems was more common among teens who ate fewer meals with their families. The findings suggest that regular family contact and communication may help protect teens against some of the harmful mental health effects of cyberbullying, according to the researchers.
"The results are promising, but we do not want to oversimplify what we observed. Many adolescents do not have regular family meals but receive support in other ways, like shared breakfasts, or the morning school run," Elgar said.
The study was published online Sept. 1 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Elgar also emphasized that parental involvement and supervision can help protect youngsters from cyberbullying.
"Checking in with teens about their online lives may give them tools to manage online harassment or bullying that can easily go undetected," he said.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: McGill University, news release, Sept. 1, 2014