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Family meals may lessen impact of teen cyberbullying

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Meals that regularly bring family members together may help protect the mental health of teens who are the victims of cyberbullying. According to a study published in the Sept. 1 online JAMA Pediatrics, family contact and the open communication that takes place at dinner time reduces some of the distressing effects of cyberbullying.

One in five teens is the victim of cyberbullying. The study, led by Frank Elgar, PhD, a professor at the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal, looked at the role frequent family meals played in reducing the impact of online bullying on adolescents’ mental health.

Elgar and his team surveyed more than 20,000 teens in Wisconsin to measure their exposure to cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying. The researchers also measured a wide range of mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, substance use, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

“We found that emotional, behavioral and substance use problems are 2.6 to 4.5 times more common among victims of cyberbullying,” said Elgar in a McGill news release. “And these impacts are not due to face-to-face bullying; they are specific to cyberbullying,” he added.

Study findings showed that the link to cyberbullying and these mental health problems was more common among teens who ate fewer meals with their families. The study investigators concluded that family contact and the communication that takes place during meals may lessen some of the harmful effects of cyberbullying.

“The more contact and communication you have with young people, the more opportunities they have to express problems they have and discuss coping strategies,” Elgar told Reuters Health in a telephone interview. “Essentially, the relationships between victimization and all other mental health outcomes were lessened with more frequent family dinners.”

Elgar acknowledged that many families aren’t able to have meals together, and that to focus solely on family dinners as a way to communicate with your children would be a mistake.

“The message that comes through for us is to talk to your kids,” he said. “Unless you take the time to check in, a lot goes undetected.”

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