Depression “surge”: Are cyberbullying and sexting to blame?

Low self-esteem, worrying about body image and stressing about exams and life in general are part and parcel of being a teenager.

But what happens when bullying becomes a part of everyday life, to the extent where you can be bullied at any time wherever you go?

Bullying online, also known as ‘cyberbullying’, and sexting is now so rife among young people that it risks causing a surge in the number of them suffering serious depression and anxiety in later life.

Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital Roehampton, warns that there is a growing flood of teens and adults who have suffered low self-esteem, body image issues and self-harming tendencies because their childhood had been scarred by online and digital abuse, as reported in DailyMail and The Times.

Mental health consequences of life online

“Episodes in childhood are often repressed, children often fear reporting abuse, and only later in life do these issues surface in the form of depression, stress and anxiety and other serious psychological conditions,” Dr Bijlani said.

“This relatively new phenomenon of sexting - where explicit texts and pictures are sent between smartphone devices - seems to have become endemic, and we are not sure of the long-term consequences.

“However, coupled with online bullying, we can expect an increasing number of people suffering issues of trust, shame, and self-loathing, sometimes manifesting itself in self harming.”

Young people and digital culture: the facts

Depression and anxiety are already thought to be affecting more young people than ever before. According to a recent study on the wellbeing of teenagers and young adults by the Office for National Statistics,  around one in five 16 to 24-year-olds has shown symptoms of depression , anxiety or stress  - almost the rate experienced in early middle age, the period most associated with emotional problems.

These young people are among the first that would have grown up with the emerging digital culture and the explosion of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

Charity ‘Ditch the Label’ recently surveyed 2,732 people aged between 13 and 25. Their research revealed the following:

  • 62% of young people had been ‘abused’ through a smartphone app
  • 37% had sent a naked photo of themselves and 24% had seen that image shared without their consent.
  • 49% said they believed sexting was just a bit of harmless fun
  • 16% said it was "the normal thing to do"
  • 13% of young people claimed they had felt pressurised into sending explicit pictures

Mental affects of bullying

A 2014 study by researchers at King's College, London, where a total of 7,771 children, whose parents provided information on their child's exposure to bullying when they were aged 7 and 11, were followed until the age of 50.

The study found that the negative social, physical and mental health effects of childhood bullying were still evident up to 40 years later. Additionally, the researchers found that at age 50, participants who had been bullied when they were children were more likely to be in poorer physical and psychological health and have worse cognitive functioning than people who had not been bullied.

Coping with bullying

Dr Bijlani said sexting - seen by some young people as the “new courtship” - can have “nightmare consequences”, and it was time to take online bullying much more seriously.

She said: “The long-term effects of bullying can be prolonged and pervasive. Much more focus needs to be given to how best educate young people about the risks of sending compromising images, and communicating with unknown others online, and how to cope with bullying via devices at school.”

The new reality is that being bullied doesn’t stop in the playground anymore – it follows young people home, in their hand and can be hugely distressing, with some victims displaying long-term social, psychological, and health consequences.

Ways to help improve a young person’s mental health

  • Parents and carers can help their child to maintain a mentally healthy lifestyle – here are a few ways how...
  • Practice internet safety and teach them to be cautious about how they use social media, to avoid exploitation or cyberbullying

  • Teach them how to understand emotions and model expressing them in a healthy way

  • Have positive, trusting relationships with them; this will help them to feel loved and supported

  • Help them to develop good, supportive friendships

  • Encourage them to take up hobbies that help them to relax and cope with the stresses of school and modern life

For more information on how we can help you support a young person  who you care for, please contact us on: 0800 840 3219  
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