Expert Commentary

How adolescents cope with digital stress

2015 study in the Journal of Adolescent Research that analyzes online comment threads from adolescents to better understand how they advise one another about online bullying.


The Internet has redefined how we do nearly everything, including how adolescents learn to navigate social challenges and relationships. An estimated 92% of teenagers go online daily, and nearly a quarter report being online “almost constantly” according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center. With more teenagers owning smartphones each year, these numbers continue to rise, and teenagers–especially girls–are engaging with social media at younger ages. This trend has led to an increase in incidences in which social relationships play out online rather than in person. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Youth Studies found that this phenomenon has driven teens to redefine what they consider interpersonal “drama.” This term is now often used to refer to relationship conflict that takes place on a social media stage.

But so-called digital “drama” is not limited only to relatively benign arguments or gossip. It has famously crossed the line to “cyberbullying,” a type of harassment to which a large number of American adolescents and teenagers are susceptible. A 2010 Pew study found that roughly 32 percent of teens have experienced some form of online harassment. And, according to FBI research, that proportion can range from 5 percent to 72 percent, depending on factors such as age and one’s definition of cyberbullying. Sometimes, online bullying has tragic offline consequences. Stories about teen suicides connected to cyberbullying have made headlines in recent years. And, a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Western Kentucky University found adolescent victims of this kind of torment are more likely to demonstrate suicidal behavior, act violently and engage in substance abuse.

A 2015 study, “How to Cope With Digital Stress: The Recommendations Adolescents Offer Their Peers Online,” examines comment threads shared among adolescent peers to better understand how young people advise each other when it comes to online bullying. The authors identified six major digital stressors:

  • Public shaming and humiliation
  • Impersonation (Using digital platforms to pretend to be another person usually “for the purpose of slandering, mocking or embarrassing the impersonated.”)
  • Mean and harassing personal attacks
  • Breaking and entering (Using another person’s online account or digital devices without permission.)
  • Pressure to comply (Experiencing pressure “to grant access to accounts or nude photographs.”)
  • Smothering (Excessive contact via online messaging in which “the content of messages is not intended to hurt nor harm, but the quantity is itself problematic.”)

The study’s findings include:

  • The authors identified five common types of recommendation patterns: get help from others; communicate directly; cut ties with the person involved; ignore the situation; use digital solutions.
  • A total of 17.9 percent of recommendations involve getting help from others in some way.
  • Almost half of all recommendations to get help from others specify contacting a lawyer or law enforcement authority such as the police. These recommendations are particularly common in situations dealing with threats to disseminate nude photographs. Parents and other adults are less commonly recommended, with school officials and peers being least recommended.
  • Communicating directly, or confronting and speaking to the person or persons involved, comprises 21.3 percent of total recommendations, and is the most commonly offered advice in situations of breaking and entering.
  • Cutting ties comprises 20 percent of all recommendations, and is the most common strategy recommended for smothering.
  • Almost all (94.7 percent) of all recommendations to cut ties are made for situations involving a romantic relationship. And, the recommendation is typically to end the relationship.
  • Ignoring or avoiding the situation is recommended in 23.4 percent of recommendations, and is the most common recommendation in response to stories about feeling pressure to comply.
  • Utilizing digital solutions, particularly by using digital relationship management tools such as “blocking,” comprises 7.2 percent of all recommendations. These digital solutions are the most common recommendation for adolescents dealing with impersonation.

The authors note a few limitations of the study. In particular, they caution that, due to the nature of the information available, they could not look for differences in recommendations according to age or gender of the recommender. In addition, they note that examining the recommendations that teens give one another does not necessarily represent how the teens themselves cope when faced with similar situations of cyberbullying or online harassment.

Related research: A 2015 study examines the strategies parents use to reduce cyberbullying and negative online behavior among adolescents. An in-depth 2014 report identified 80 studies that correlate cyberbullying with offline bullying and examined what these findings mean for policies and efforts to combat multiple forms of adolescent aggression.


Keywords: adolescents, teens, technology, cyberbullying, online harassment


About The Author