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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Research explores social media risks of cyberbullying, unhealthy eating for youth

April 21, 2016 - ​The more time young people spend on social media, the higher the risk they’ll report cyberbullying and unhealthy eating behaviours such as skipping breakfast, according to new research based on data from CAMH’s Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS).

CAMH Scientist Dr. Hayley Hamilton recently collaborated with Ottawa Public Health to explore various risks related to social media use among young people.

The research shows direct associations between increased social media use and the risk of specific unhealthy eating behaviours. In the case of cyberbullying, the research reveals that certain groups, such as students in Grades 8 and 9, are particularly vulnerable.

 “We’re able to pinpoint emerging risks related to social media – and their public health consequences,” says Dr. Hamilton, of CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.

Girl looking at phone while other girls laugh in background

Cyberbullying: Younger students at greater risk

Dr. Hamilton and co-investigator Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga of Ottawa Public Health analyzed data from a sample of 5,000-plus students aged 11 to 20 that was collected as part of the 2013 OSDUHS survey. OSDUHS began in 1997, and is the longest ongoing school survey in Canada.

The researchers examined the relationship between the use of social media and cyberbullying victimization, including threats, harassment, embarrassment and social exclusion. Unlike other forms of bullying, cyberbullying’s impact can be pervasive, the study notes. Likewise, it may be harder for parents or teachers to notice – or intervene – when a young person is cyberbullied.

“This research advances our understanding by focusing on time spent on social media, rather than focusing only on type of activities online,” says Dr. Hamilton.

Overall, 19 per cent of students said they had been cyberbullied in the past year. “We discovered several groups who were more vulnerable to cyberbullying. These included females, younger adolescents, and students who reported using alcohol or tobacco,” says Dr. Hamilton.

For example – more than 24 per cent of students in Grades 8 and 9 reported experiencing cyberbullying, versus just over 15 per cent for Grade 12 students.

A perfect target

“Younger students may be the perfect target for cyberbullies” because they may engage in behaviours that put themselves at higher risk, says Dr. Hamilton. These may include giving away personal information and connecting with strangers through social media, notes the study, which was published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Older students may be more cautious based on experience.

The researchers also found that as the hours spent on social media increased, so did the risk of cyberbullying. For example, of those students using social media more than five hours daily, 38 per cent reported cyberbullying in the past year, compared to 14 per cent of those who spent less than one hour daily. Likewise, alcohol, cannabis and tobacco use tended to be higher among those using social media more, an association that will see further study.

There can be serious mental health consequences, including a related suicide risk in some cases, says Dr. Hamilton. Dr. Sampasa-Kanyinga adds, “The mental health risks associated with cyberbullying make this an important area for increased education and awareness within our community.”

Unhealthy eating trends identified

The researchers also collaborated on a study looking at unhealthy eating behaviours and their relationship to social media.

The study used OSDUHS 2013 data from almost 10,000 students in Grades seven through 12. It went further than previous research to pinpoint risks related to specific unhealthy eating behaviours.

“We found that the greater the use of social networking sites, the greater the odds that students would skip breakfast, consume sugar-loaded drinks such as soda pop, as well as caffeine-loaded energy drinks,” says Dr. Hamilton.

For example, of the students who used social networking sites for about two hours daily, 21 per cent reported skipping breakfast, versus 11 per cent of those who were on social networking sites less than one hour a day. Likewise, the numbers were 23 per cent (two hours a day) and 13 per cent (less than one hour a day) respectively when it came to consuming energy drinks. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in body mass index (BMI) in the students surveyed.

The study was published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Dr. Hamilton, Dr. Sampasa-Kanyinga, and Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput of the University of Ottawa’s Department of Pediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, collaborated on the study.

Unhealthy eating is related to time spent on social media – and may be exacerbated by the food advertising on these sites, the researchers note.

Understanding the risks in a changing landscape

“The social networking landscape changes so quickly, and young people always find new options and ways to network online,” says Dr. Hamilton. “Some apps disguise their social networking function, so what you see may not be what you get.”

Young people and their parents should be acutely aware of social media use benefits and risks, Dr. Hamilton says. These include:

  • time spent on social media and how that may impact other aspects of life
  • the risk of cyberbullying and unhealthy eating
  • negative feelings related to the use of social media.

“When we can shine a light on issues like these, we can also promote actions to address them and minimize risk for young people,” says Dr. Hamilton.

Dr. Hayley Hamilton
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