Today is World Mental Health Day (WMHD), on this day the effort is made to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilise initiatives to support mental health all around the world. The World Health Organization organised a global campaign for World Mental Health Day, with this year’s theme ‘Make mental health & well-being for all a global priority’. On the event page of the WMHD website an overview is presented of the events that are organised worldwide. As research shows, cyberbullying has negative consequences on mental health and wellbeing of the victims.¹ In light of this day, we interviewed Dr. Michelle O’Reilly regarding cyberbullying, since she is an expert in the field of mental health.

What is your expertise regarding cyberbullying?

My expertise in cyberbullying comes from my academic research and roles at the University of Leicester and Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. My research has focused on child and adolescent mental health, with one area of this exploring the relationship between digital media and mental health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, during this research, cyberbullying, its consequences for mental health and wellbeing, and its connection to digital empathy, digital respect, digital kindness, and children’s agency and rights has been a considerable area discussed by young children and adolescents. In my research with a multi-disciplinary team, we have created a Digital Ethics of Care framework which is focused on child and adolescent online conduct, and this includes cyberbullying, but also other negative behaviours, as well as the promotion of positive behaviour, positive communication, and centrally on empathic behaviour. My colleagues and I wrote a book for professionals, synthesizing the evidence and giving practical advice, on digital media and mental health, with Sage Publishers.

What is a promising development that you noticed in your field of work regarding cyberbullying?

A promising development in the field is a move away from treating children and young people as a homogenous group, recognizing that there are differences and different levels of vulnerability. Aligned with this is a greater recognition that digital media, and social media more specifically, are not used by all in the same way and that screen time specifically is not necessarily the challenge for cyberbullying, or other online interactions that are problematic for children and young people. There are ways to promote the empowerment and agency of children and young people, foster more positive ways of interacting online, and reducing cyberbullying behaviour through moral reasoning, digital empathy, and providing children and young people the digital literacy and citizenship skills that can reduce cyberbullying behaviour. Notably, this has to be considered in relation to broader systemic and structural inequalities and wider social, political and familial influences on the children and young people.

What do you think is necessary to create a future in where cyberbullying doesn’t exist?

There are several things needed to aspire to a future free from cyberbullying and these are multifaceted and complicated. What I provide here in response is a necessarily shortened and simplified overview of some of those issues.

  1. First, we need greater investment in research, quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. Child-centred research that places children’s voices at the heart of understanding the issues pertinent to cyberbullying.
  2. Second, we need more interdisciplinary working. To address cyberbullying, we need an interdisciplinary approach with various epistemic contributions to promote innovation and creativity, but also implementation, translation, and practice-based recommendations.
  3. Third, we need to work with a range of practitioners such as teachers, governors, policy makers, mental health professionals, social workers and so forth to educate and promote the necessary societal values in children to help them moderate and understand their own behaviour online, and we need to work with parents to help them.
  4. Fourth, more work needs to be done by technology companies to promote positive behaviour and reduce negative behaviour, and to safeguard child wellbeing and mental health.
  5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, globally more needs to be done by governments, schools, and communities to address the wider systemic and structural inequalities that encourage and influence the bullying behaviour of children. There is a wide literature on the range of factors that lead children to this behaviour or contribute to the likelihood of being a victim, but issues such as adverse childhood experiences, mental health challenges, poor familial environments, poverty, and so forth need to be addressed to help children feel secure and safe.

Overall, fundamentally some peer conflict is normal, and children will learn resilience, coping strategies, and management of relations through this. Care needs to be taken not to call everything bullying, so that genuine bullying can be managed effectively, and that includes in-person as well as cyber (given they often overlap). Environments need to be created where children can speak out, as silence is one of the biggest challenges that maintain cyberbullying.

If you could give youth advice who are growing up in the digital environment where cyberbullying occurs what would it be?

My advice to children and young people is to be aware of their feelings and how they are behaving in online spaces. Take time to think and breathe before putting anything online, and remember, it is there forever. When putting something on social media or anywhere else think about how the person receiving that will feel when they see or read it. Educate yourself about digital media and learn how to block people and manage your privacy settings. Ultimately, remember, talk to a trusted adult about how you feel, get advice, and use digital media in positive ways.

[1] O’Reilly et al. 2022, p. 185

About the author:

Dr Michelle O’Reilly is an Associate Professor of Communication in Mental Health at the University of Leicester and a Research Consultant and Quality Improvement Advisor for Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. Michelle is also a Chartered Psychologist in Health. Michelle has research interests in mental health and social media, self-harm and suicidal behaviour, neurodevelopmental conditions, and child mental health services, such as mental health assessments and family therapy. Michelle has expertise in qualitative methodologies and specialises in discursive psychology and conversation analysis. Michelle has written considerably in the field of research methods and has written practical guidance for clinical practitioners.


Image credit: Marcos Paulo Prado | Unsplash