Author Insights: Family Dinners May Buffer the Effects of Cyberbullying

Frank J. Elgar, PhD, of McGill University, and colleagues found that family dinners may buffer the harmful effects of cyberbullying on teens. Image: McGill University

Frank J. Elgar, PhD, of McGill University, and colleagues found that family dinners may buffer the harmful effects of cyberbullying on teens. Image: McGill University

Having regular family dinners may help buffer the harmful effects of cyberbullying for teens, according to a study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics.

Widespread use of social media by teens has created a new platform for bullying that can be difficult for parents and other adults to monitor. Cyberbullying has become common, and being targeted online can lead to mental health and behavioral issues for teens. Because cyberbullying can be hard for teens to escape, some studies have suggested it may be more harmful than other types of bullying.

Frank J. Elgar, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, and his colleagues assessed the mental health effects of cyberbullying on teens. Using survey data from more than 18 000 teens in Wisconsin, the researchers confirmed earlier estimates that about 1 in 5 teens experiences cyberbullying. They found that the more frequently youth were bullied, the more likely they were to develop anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other mental health problems. More frequently bullied teens were also more likely to act out through fighting or vandalism.

Teens who reported frequently eating dinners together with their family, however, were less likely to report negative health or behavioral outcomes, even when they were bullied.

Elgar discussed the study findings with news@JAMA.

news@JAMA: Why did you decide to conduct this study?

Dr Elgar: We had 2 questions going in. The first was whether cyberbullying has unique effects on teen mental health. We found that it has a unique affect on teen mental health. The next question was whether there are protective factors. We looked at family dinners as a moderating factor. What we found was that those teens who were targeted for cyberbullying and who frequently ate dinner with family were helped.

news@JAMA: What are the limitations of this study?

Dr Elgar: There are a few big caveats. Given the design of the study, we couldn’t tell if the mental health effects we saw were from the cyberbullying or if kids who have mental health concerns are more likely to become targets, if teens with existing mental health issues may be reluctant to come together with family for meals, or all of the above.

When we focused solely on cyberbullying, we found an association between victimization and health effects, including teens misusing drugs, getting into fights, developing depression and anxiety, or harming themselves or thinking about it.

news@JAMA: Why did you look specifically at family dinners as a protective factor?

Dr Elgar: We are using family dinners because it is convenient. Young people have an easier time reporting family dinners than other measures. But it is not about the dinners at all; it is the contact and having the opportunity to talk about issues as they arise.

news@JAMA: What is the main message you’d like readers to take away?

Dr Elgar: For health providers and parents, our data would confirm what they would intuit already about the value of making time to protect their children from the effects of what happens online. It can be hard to detect cyberbullying if you don’t ask. It is not about dinners, really; it is about communication.

Categories: Primary Care/Family Medicine, Psychiatry, Public Health, Substance Abuse/Alcoholism, Suicide

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