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11.24.2015

UHealth Physicians Link Cyberbullying to Inpatient Psychiatric Care Among South Florida Youth

A study conducted by child and adolescent psychiatrists with UHealth – the University of Miami Health System has shown that young people in South Florida who were admitted into inpatient psychiatric care for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues also suffered from significant rates of cyberbullying.

The research findings were based on interviews and assessments of dozens of adolescents and teens ages 10-17 who received inpatient psychiatric care at Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital, one of the largest and most comprehensive public psychiatric programs in the United States. Of the 51 minors interviewed, 24 reported experiencing some form of bullying, primarily through social media outlets such as Facebook or text messaging.

Cyberbullying is increasingly prevalent among today’s young people. The study, published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, reveals the relationship between cyberbullying and acute depression, anxiety and lack of self-esteem.

“Inevitably, issues with self-esteem, body image, and overall social functioning arise when a youth is subjected to cyberbullying,” said first author Arunditi Xantus, M.D., a UHealth pediatric psychiatrist, who led the study after observing that more teens were being hospitalized at Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital after experiencing disturbing Internet activity on computers or their smart phones.

The data collected shows broader implications on the level of social media connectedness and addiction that leaves youth more vulnerable to cyberbullying and its harmful effects, said Xantus.

“The impact of cyberbullying is huge and can color every aspect of a youth’s life, from their academic performance to social interactions, familial interactions and emotional health,” said Xantus, who is also assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Xantus also noted that higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts or thoughts have been linked to cyberbullying, especially among the more vulnerable populations such as transgender and homosexual young people.

Although many of the patients come from impoverished backgrounds, the study showed that they overwhelmingly had access to smart phones and computers.

Xantus described seeing one to two teenagers per week at Jackson who were hospitalized after posting a “suggestive” message on Facebook or other social media site. Some stated that they were going to end their life or do something irrational. Many others were hospitalized after falling into a depression, seemingly spurred by bullying on social media sites. These observations prompted Xantus and other UHealth psychiatrists to quantify the scale of the cyberbullying problem among the youth in care.

“Bullying used to be limited to in-person interactions and children were generally sheltered from it at home,” said study co-author Samantha Saltz, M.D., a fellow in the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who was corresponding author for the article. “With social media, bullying has no physical boundaries. It follows children anywhere they can access from an Internet-enabled device.”

Study participants completed four separate measurements of anxiety and depression: the Modified Cyberbullying Questionnaire, the Children’s Depression Inventory, the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED) and the Piers-Harris Children’s Self Concept Scale. Among the findings, researchers found that the youth who scored highest on each assessment also indicated higher rates of cyberbullying.

“The research shows that children who have low self-esteem have higher rates of bullying,” said Ushimbra J. Buford, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist at UHealth and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Miller School of Medicine, who plans to conduct a second study to investigate the effects of cyberbullying on youth in inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care. “We are going to examine the depths of the relationship between self-esteem and cyberbullying, and reveal whether youth with low self-esteem are more prone to being victims of cyberbullying, and the extent to which cyberbullying causes the low self-esteem.”

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