05 February 2020

Maria Fridh is this year’s recipient of the Barnafrid Award. She was lauded for her doctoral thesis on topics including the correlation between online harassment, mental ill-health and self-harming behaviour. Being subject to online harassment just once can impact mental health.

Maria Fridh recieved the Barnafridspriset from Professor Carl Göran Svedin.
 Maria Fridh, Lund University, was lauded at theBarnafrid Conference in Linköping for her doctoral thesis on the correlationbetween online harassment and self-harming behaviour. ProfessorCarl Göran Svedin presented the award. Photo: Ulrik Svedin
“I’m delighted to receive the Barnafrid Award for my doctoral thesis. I’m proud and honoured”, says Maria Fridh, who will soon complete her specialisation in social medicine.
Maria Fridh is affiliated with Lund University. Her award-winning doctoral thesis is titled “Bullying, violence and mental distress among young people. Cross-sectional population-based studies in Scania, Sweden”. For a number of years, Region Skåne conducted extensive public health questionnaires, which included school pupils in years six, nine and eleven, in 2012 and 2016. In this material, Maria Fridh and her colleagues identified a correlation between online harassment and mental ill-health.

A single instance

“The correlation was stronger if you had been subject to online harassment more than once in the past year. But having been subject it just once in the past year was still significant, even after adjusting for a series of factors such as age, socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol, disability and being subject to harassment.”
Previous research has shown that one offensive action (words, image, film clip…) online can have serious results.
“Based on our own data, we can’t explain why a single instance has such a clear correlation with mental ill-health. But it could be related to the nature of the internet. Material is spread rapidly to an unpredictably large audience, the sender can be anonymous, it’s impossible to defend oneself against the rumours that are spread, and the offensive material can you remain in cyberspace forever”, says Maria Fridh.
Teenagers often use self-harm to manage anxiety. In the doctoral thesis’ third study, Maria Fridh investigated the correlation between being involved in online bullying (as a bully, as a victim, or as both) and self-harming behaviour in a group of pupils with mental ill-health. 

Bullies and victims

“We know from previous research that people who only bully others are a special group. They are often dominant, risk-taking boys in grades 7 to 9, who consolidate their own high-status position by repeatedly humiliating a weaker individual in front of an audience. They choose their victim with care. The victim is often a low-status person who cannot defend him- or herself, who gets sad and lacks friends. The bullies act where adults cannot see. People who are both bully and victim, we call them ‘bully-victims’, are often risk-taking, impulsive individuals with low status in the group – and many have ADHD.”
Over time, those who are subject to intensive and more extended bullying risk serious consequences socioeconomically, in their relationships and in terms of health well into their adulthood.
“At the group level, both bullies and bully-victims are more risk-taking and stand a greater risk of run-ins with the law. But while some studies cannot present any consequences for bullies over time, bully-victims are unanimously the group with the toughest consequences in terms of socioeconomic, relationship and health factors.”

Maria Fridh’s results agree well with previous research in the field:
“Boys who bully others online have the weakest correlation with self-harming behaviour. For victims and bully-victims, the correlations were gradually stronger, and remained after adjustment for various factors.”
Professionals in the school and healthcare sectors should know about correlations between self-harming behavior and bullying:
“They see different aspects of this. Schools know more about friendship relations and healthcare deals with the injuries.”

What are your thoughts on the measures taken in schools today?
“Schools are bound by law to prevent bullying, but it’s not an easy job, since a lot of it takes place behind closed doors – especially online. What happens online reflects human relations in the real world. It seems wise to let children hand in their mobile phones while at school so they get a break from the internet, and a chance to play.”

“Adult presence and moral courage are essential. All adults in school must be in agreement about zero-tolerance against, for instance, offensive language, and must act accordingly. We know that the entire school must be involved in the efforts against bullying. And that different measures work for boys and for girls respectively. Using pupils as friend support who play a mediating role is not to be recommended, as it places too heavy a burden on a child. Theme days with a focus on bullying can backfire, and trigger the wrong behaviour.”

More knowledge

She believes there is a need for more knowledge about these issues.
“We need it wherever children are found, especially in school. I hope to be able to work with spreading knowledge and preventive measures for mental ill-health among young people. It’s important to evaluate different projects, so we can find out what works and what doesn’t.”
Maria Fridh will soon be qualified as a specialist in social medicine. After her doctoral thesis, she has written a couple of articles on mental ill-health and increased mortality (including suicide) in the adult population, where there is a clear correlation between mental ill-health and mortality five years later.
“I would like to do more research into different forms of disabilities, bullying, online harassment and mental ill-health among schoolchildren, preferably using questionnaires combined with interviews.”

LINK TO Maria Fridh’s doctoral thesis (Lund University): 
Bullying, violence and mental distress among young people. Cross-sectional population-based studies in Scania, Sweden

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