Understanding how the brain is affected by cyberbullying

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1. SUMMARY

Cyberbullying is a national and international problem for young people leading to an array of serious mental health concerns, including suicide. Whilst the links between cyberbullying and mental health outcomes are recognised, no research has examined the links between cyberbullying and brain development in young people. No research to date has investigated how the brain responds to cyberbullying stimuli in real time, and how this is influenced by: age, gender, previous cyberbullying experiences, and existing mental health issues.

I have developed the Cyberbullying Picture Series (CyPicS), and optimised a task based functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) protocol to examine brain activation in cyberbystanders. I have found a cyberbullying ‘signature’ in the brain. This research allows us to better understand how some cybervictims experience and develop difficulties concerning their mental health while others remain resilient, and could inform cyberbullying education programs and early and appropriate interventions.

2. BENEFIT

In 2019, The Queensland Anti-Cyberbullying Task Force reported that bullying (recent or historical) was a factor in 17% of youth suicides, stating that bullying can significantly exacerbate suicide risk factors already present, such as mental health issues. In Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death in those aged 15 to 44 years according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, costing the Nation approximately $17.5 billion every year.

Research to date has investigated the role of cyberbystanders in cyberbullying, but little research has used real-time scenarios to measure how young people respond or react to cyberbullying. My research is the first to use fMRI to examine brain activation in cyberbystanders, and will bring researchers closer to understanding the various neurobiological underpinnings that may be associated with cyber-victim/bully status and outcomes.

My research will further our understanding of how people respond to cyberbullying as a cyberbystander and if these responses are influenced by individual experiences of cyberbullying and individual mental health and wellbeing. Moreover, my research outcomes may assist the development of interventions for people who do not respond appropriately to witnessing cyberbullying and in understanding different cyberbystander behaviours. The knowledge generated from this research will aim to reduce the impacts of cyberbullying – socially and economically.

Furthermore, this research can inform industry partners and relevant organisations of appropriate interventions for cyberbullying. This research could not only be beneficial in informing government initiatives, but also the department of education and anti-bullying campaigns. Given the practical importance of the problem being addressed by this project, communication and translation of the results are key. I have already published findings in a top neuroimaging journal (Human Brain Mapping), and have presented my work at academic conferences, thereby promoting translation to industry.

In addition, I am passionate about communicating and translating the research to ensure it reaches schools, educators, parents, and young people. I have existing relationships with several schools on the Sunshine Coast, and use this network to share publications and offer talks on the results and development of the project.

This research has both national and international significance to the cyberbullying and neurobiology fields. Whilst the focus is on Australia, the methodology and findings will be applicable worldwide. Most importantly, results from this research will provide critical information about how brain-changes during adolescence may influence how a young person responds to witnessing cyberbullying. 

3. ENGAGEMENT

I am passionate about mentoring students, having mentored several work experience high-school students who undertook their placements at the Sunshine Coast Mind and Neuroscience –Thompson Institute, and 2 work placement students from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). I also have a mentoring role within my research engagement activities with science, technology, and maths (STEM) students from local and remote high schools. We have hosted several STEM workshops at the Thompson Institute to support careers in research.

As part of the Youth Mental Health program we are establishing a ‘future researchers program’ in which we will consult high-school student ambassadors on our Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS). The goal of LABS is to determine and track changes in the brain during adolescence, to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that impact adolescent mental health.

In relation to this, I am also a science mentor for Frontiers for Young Minds (FYM), which is an open-access journal where papers are reviewed by young people aged 8-15 years. I am a mentor for the Neurosciences and Health sections, and I was a part of the first FYM live review event, which was held at the Society for Mental Health Research (SMHR) conference in 2018. This involved mentoring 12 Grade 10 students in critically reviewing scientific articles, providing one-on-one feedback, and providing 3 research workshops across the year to help the students to understand the scientific review process.

I have been invited to speak at community, industry and government events, and have presented at 8 schools since 2018. I was a keynote speaker and panelist at the USC Professional Development Day for key high school influencers and more than 100 guidance officers, careers advisors and senior school administrators (2019), and a keynote speaker at the USC With Respect and Safer Community Symposium (2018). These talks have focused on cyberbullying and what parents and schools can do about it. For example:

  • At St John’s College I provided a 90-minute workshop on their “Wellbeing Day” about the adolescent brain and mental health, and discussed cyberbullying and how young people can cope with it, and what to do if their friends are being cyberbullied;
  • At Caloundra State High School I delivered several workshops during their “Mental Health Week”,discussing the importance of telling someone if you are being cyberbullied;
  • At Kawana High School I provided a cyberbullying workshop during National Science Week; and
  • I hosted 2 school visits to the Thompson Institute to discuss careers in research and neuroscience. Their success resulted in both schools wish to visit annually as a part of their regular curriculum.
  • At Nambour State High School I delivered information sessions to school staff around their implemented cyberbullying practices and how they can improve them through evidence-based practices.

A further example of collaborating with community members in 2018 is evidenced by a parent blog I wrote on cyberbullying for the USC “Parent Lounge” website, designed to keep parents up-to-date with everything they need to know about university life and study at USC. 

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Larisa has a decade of experience conducting research through 3 postgraduate qualifications (Honours, Masters, and Doctorate) and her previous work for ConNetica Consulting. Larisa is currently ...

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