How does Cyberbullying Affect our Neurobiology?

cyberbullyingAlongside the integration of smart technology in children and young people’s lives, sits cyberbullying. This form of abuse takes place online or through smartphones and tablets. There are plenty of platforms within which we are spending time, from social media sites like Snapchat and Instagram, to gaming channels such as Xbox Live. Whilst plenty have positive experiences online, things can go wrong.

Cyberbullying is widespread and more common than you might think. In a recent survey, 56% of young people said that they have seen others bullied online and 42% have felt unsafe. But how does cyberbullying affect us?

Cyberbullying is a form of abuse that involves an imbalance of power. This power is used against an individual, causing them to feel great distress. As well as short term distress, feelings may not fizzle out when the bullying is over; rather, they can have long term effects which can seriously harm that person’s future.

Our fight/flight or freeze responses are triggered when we experience bullying. Our threat-detector in the brain (the amygdala) which is constantly scanning for potential danger, is repeatedly triggered. We are therefore in a state of high alert causing raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies. This is bad for our health. High levels of cortisol can, in the long term, weaken our immune system and make us more vulnerable to infection.

Studies have found that bullying may also impact our memory functioning. It has been discovered that those who have experienced bullying have a poorer functioning of an important part of the brain involved in memory (hippocampus) compared to their non-bullied peers.

It is vital, both in our settings and homes, to be aware of the far-reaching potential of cyberbullying. Bullying no longer ends at the school gate, it is coming home and can easily be the last thing children or young people experience before they try to go to sleep. As a result, we may notice that those who are bullied can often be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. They may also find it impossible to relax, enjoy life and take pleasure in new hobbies and activities.

We must take cyberbullying, as with all forms of bullying, extremely seriously. The above effects, without intervention, can tarnish a whole lifetime. At Thrive, we are interested in looking at the emotional need behind the behaviours of both the bullied and the bully, in order to address the underlying problems.

At Thrive, we are curious. This curiosity removes judgement and allows us to think about what is behind the behaviour and how we can meet the underlying needs of the individual. Cyberbullying, by its very nature, operates on a uniquely disconnected level. When a person cyberbullies another, they are cut off from them in a physical sense; both parties are in isolation. The bully cannot see the impact of their actions first hand as there is a great chasm between them. This chasm causes disconnect and an absence of empathy. A sense of invisibility manifests and this can be powerful.

It is important to consider the emotions driving the bullying – they may be very deep and need support. It is not just the bullied that need help to overcome their emotional turmoil; everybody involved needs to be connected with. Thrive works alongside both the bully and bullied in order to understand and meet the underlying emotional needs of both sides. Only when we help everyone involved, can we shift behaviour and find true resolution, preventing long term damage.