Interview with Dr. Christine MacDonald, Ph.D. on the Effects of Cyberbullying

About Professor Christine MacDonald, Ph.D.: Dr. MacDonald is a Professor of Educational and School Psychology at Indiana State University. She earned her Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Memphis and has more than 20 years of research experience in aggression and relationships. Dr. MacDonald’s current research focus is bullying, cyberbullying, and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment, particularly in the college setting. She has presented internationally, nationally, and locally to academicians, students, and school professionals on these topics. Dr. Christine MacDonald was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] What are the psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects of cyberbullying, and how can school social workers mitigate or handle these effects while working with a client who has experienced cyberbullying?

[Professor MacDonald] The effects of cyberbullying tend to be similar to those of more traditional forms of bullying, and can include a whole host of internalizing disorders, such as depression, withdrawal, and anxiety. Cyberbullying can also lead to somatic complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches. Students may avoid certain school or social activities. They may experience low self-esteem or a drop in school performance. In severe cases, anorexia, school drop-out, or suicide can occur.

[] What are the primary platforms that cyberbullies use, and how do the differences among these platforms change how social workers, counselors, and parents should handle cyberbullying? As these platforms (for example Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) are constantly evolving, and new social media platforms are constantly being introduced, how can school social workers, parents, and school counselors stay current with the latest social media and communication technologies being used to commit cyberbullying?

[Professor MacDonald] The platforms are constantly changing, as new apps and social media sites are developed and older means of communication, such as email, begin to be perceived as out-of-date. Whatever the platforms that children and adolescents are primarily using will be what cyberbullies will be drawn to as well. Recently, it appears that young people are moving away from Facebook to some degree, and towards Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, and Twitter.

For professionals, one way to keep up with what new technologies are out there is through taking advantage of continuing professional development opportunities, which I recommend for all professionals, regardless of position or degree. Another simpler way to find out what students are using, and an important one for parents, is to ask them. For parents, it is important to know what sites their children are visiting, and what apps they are using, and to engage their children in conversations about what constitutes appropriate usage.

[] What is the responsibility of the school social worker when working with clients suffering from cyberbullying? On the flip side, what are the limitations of what a school social worker can do to help or protect his or her clients?

[Professor MacDonald] School social workers should be aware that the best form of intervention is often prevention. The most effective forms of prevention programs for bullying and cyberbullying are school-wide, systematic approaches that address interpersonal interactions and civility broadly, rather than targeting just aggressors or their victims. So, school social workers may be able to work with other school personnel to help implement such an approach. They can help students to find appropriate social support systems, and let parents know what is going on, as parents may be unaware of the situation. They also may be able to connect victims of cyberbullying with appropriate counseling resources, both within the school and the community. For those who have been targets of cyberbullying via Facebook, school social workers can also encourage them to report the incident(s) to Facebook (which has created new tools for this), as well as to block the aggressor.

[] How should school social workers balance clients’ needs with legal considerations and people’s privacy? For example, is it ethical or legal for school social workers and school counselors to monitor the content that students post on social media sites or blogs?

[Professor MacDonald] Certainly all school professionals need to be aware not only of their profession’s code of ethics and how it applies to such situations, but also to the specific laws in their state which may apply. In some states, there have been legal rulings that schools have the right to search students’ lockers at random, with no warning. Similar rulings may or may not apply to student’s online accounts. However, I would suggest that no school professional wants to, or has time to, monitor all their students’ online activity, even if it were ethically and legally permissible.

[] For students who are working to become social workers and who would like to work with youth and adults who are suffering from cyberbullying, how would you recommend they prepare for this area of work, both academically and in their field education?

[Professor MacDonald] I would recommend that they seek out coursework and field experiences in counseling and psychology, as well as in diversity related content. We know that those who are different from the majority tend to become targets of traditional bullying. Whether this remains true in the cyber world is currently unclear.

[] How prevalent is cyberbullying outside of a school/college context? For example, is cyberbullying a major issue in the workplace?

[Professor MacDonald] Yes, it is. Bullying and cyberbullying, unfortunately, are not behaviors that individuals “grow out of”. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute survey in 2010, 35% of workers have experience workplace bullying. One study done in the UK found that as many as 8 out 10 workers had experienced at least one cyberbullying behavior in the last six months.

[] For school social workers and people who want to get involved in larger anti-cyberbullying movements either in their community or nationally, do you have any recommendations as to how they engage in these movements? What organizations can school social workers, counselors, and other individuals join to address cyberbullying on a larger scale?

[Professor MacDonald] While there are many anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying movements and organizations, as a quick Internet search will demonstrate, I would encourage focusing on those with a research basis and those which have empirically supported systems of prevention and intervention. Often these can be located through other professional organizations. One resource I would note:

  • Stop Bullying has been developed by the federal government as a “one-stop shop” for parents and school professionals interested in bullying and cyberbullying.

Thank you Dr. Christine MacDonald for your time and insight into the psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects of cyberbullying.

Last updated: April 2020