In these times of busy and fast-paced lifestyles, sitting down to a family meal can be a rare luxury. But a new study suggests that for teenagers, regular family meals could protect them against the negative implications of cyberbullying.

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Regular family meals could reduce the effects of cyberbullying in adolescents, according to researchers.

According to Enough is Enough, an organization that aims to increase internet safety for children and families, 43% of teenagers aged 13-17 report that they have experienced some form of cyberbullying in the past 12 months.

Cyberbullying can have serious implications for adolescents. Studies have suggested that it can trigger anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming cyberbullying causes suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents more than traditional bullying.

“Many adolescents use social media, and online harassment and abuse are difficult for parents and educators to monitor, so it is critical to identify protective factors for youths who are exposed to cyberbullying,” says leader of this latest study Frank Elgar, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine, Canada.

As such, Elgar and his team set out to determine whether frequency of family meals – a time of social interaction with family members – influenced the effects of cyberbullying on the mental health of adolescents.

To reach their findings, recently published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers analyzed 20,385 adolescents from Wisconsin.

Fast facts about cyberbullying in the US
  • In the past year, around 1 million children were harassed, threatened or experienced other forms of bullying on Facebook
  • Approximately 1 in 6 parents knows their child has been bullied via a social networking site
  • Around 80% of adolescents believe it is easier to hide cyberbullying from their parents than face-to-face bullying.

They looked at whether these adolescents were exposed to cyberbullying or traditional face-to-face bullying, and how these forms of bullying impacted a variety of mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, substance use, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicidal attempts.

In addition, they gathered information on the adolescents’ regularity of family meals.

The team’s findings revealed that adolescents who experienced cyberbullying were 2.6-4.5 times more likely to have emotional, behavioral and substance use problems than those who experienced traditional bullying. Furthermore, these problems were found to be more common among adolescents who had fewer family meals.

According to the researchers, these findings indicate that regular family meals may protect against the effects of cyberbullying, possibly because of the family contact and communication these family meals involve.

Elgar notes, however, that although these results demonstrate a promising strategy for reducing the implications of cyberbullying among youths, “we do not want to oversimplify what we observed.”

“Many adolescents do not have regular family meals but receive support in other ways, like shared breakfasts, or the morning school run,” he adds.

He concludes that overall, the team’s findings suggest that parental involvement in children’s lives and online supervision could go a long way when it comes to tackling cyberbullying:

Checking in with teens about their online lives may give them tools to manage online harassment or bullying that can easily go undetected.”

In February this year, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming bullying affects children’s long-term health.