Cyberbullying is a prevalent concern around the world. Research shows that interactions online are associated with similar structural correlates and patterns of brain activity to real-world (offline) relationships, and that the brain experiences peer victimisation (e.g., cyberbullying) in the same way that it experiences physical pain. Furthermore, these experiences can become biologically embedded in the physiology of the developing person, thereby increasing their risk of developing mental health problems. With the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying and youth internet usage, there is a pressing need to further understand the brain's response to cyberbullying.
We hypothesise that a unique pattern of brain activation is associated with cyberbullying and can be identified using task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (tbfMRI). However, there is a dearth of research regarding cyberbullying and no fMRI paradigm exists in a real-time situation such as observing a cyberbullying scenario. Here, we propose a tbfMRI protocol we have developed specifically for this purpose.
This paper will describe a tbfMRI protocol that can be used to investigate the hypothesis. The overall aim of such a protocol is to elucidate the neurobiological underpinnings of cyberbullying by exploring the brain responses in passive cyber-bystanders (those who witness cyberbullying). This would be the first research to use fMRI to examine brain activation in cyberbystanders, and will bring us closer to understanding the various neurobiological underpinnings that may be associated with cybervictim/bully status and outcomes.
Cyberbullying can have serious impacts on mental health (Fahy et al., 2016; Le et al., 2017; McLoughlin, Spears, & Taddeo, 2018; McLoughlin, Spears, Taddeo, & Hermens, 2019), and is commonly defined as an aggressive, repeated, intentional act carried out on an individual using electronic forms (Smith et al., 2008). Cybervictims report significantly more social difficulties, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and are more likely to suffer suicidal ideation (Kowalski, Giumetti, Schroeder, & Lattanner, 2014; van Geel, Vedder, & Tanilon, 2014) than victims of traditional bullying. Prevalence estimates vary, however, The AU Kids Online study (Green, Brady, Ólafsson, Hartley, & Lumby, 2012) found that 29% of Australian children (19% across Europe) said they had been bullied, and 13% of those bullied said this occurred on the internet