As teens spend more and more of their time online, new challenges are adding to the angst of that phase of life—like the constant urge to compare their seemingly ordinary lives to the exciting, happy moments their peers post about. There is an old challenge, though, that has taken on a new form: cyberbullying.

A sad student stands by lockers in school holding a smartphone

Cyberbullying is in some ways worse than traditional bullying because the attacks can live forever on the internet and can reach a much broader audience. And it’s especially urgent to address at a time when teen mental health has already taken such a hit, before and during the pandemic.

But there’s some encouraging news from a new study suggesting that nurturing gratitude in students could reduce this online abuse.

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The study included almost 500 11 to 17 year olds from three different schools in Spain. The students within each school participated in either a four-week gratitude program, a four-week cyberbullying education program, or neither.

Across four one-hour sessions in the gratitude program, the students learned about gratitude, practiced through activities like gratitude journaling, and role-played scenarios using gratitude to reduce the risk and harms of cyberbullying. For example, teens were asked to think about a difficult experience related to cyberbullying and then think about someone who helped them in one way or another through that experience.

The cyberbullying education program involved discussions about what cyberbullying is, how it is different from traditional bullying, and how the students might be able to prevent or take action during a cyberbullying incident.

All the students took a survey at the beginning and end of their program, as well as three months afterward, which asked them how much they had engaged in cyberbullying in the recent past, including calling someone names via text or online messages and spreading rumors about someone on the internet.

The researchers found that the students who went through the cyberbullying education program engaged in less cyberaggression afterward in comparison to those who didn’t take any program. The gratitude group did not show a reduction at this point, but they did report engaging in less cyberbullying after three months, while the cyberbullying education group did not continue to show benefits three months later.

This suggests that learning about and practicing gratitude may have lasting impacts on an adolescent’s tendency to engage in cyberbullying—after only four hours of lessons. The fact that a decrease in cyberbullying didn’t occur right away for gratitude, as it did with cyberbullying education, suggests that it may have taken time for the young people to think about and incorporate it into their lives. A combination of these two approaches could be most helpful, the authors suggest.

While this study did not directly test how gratitude might reduce cyberbullying, the researchers did suggest a few ways that this might happen. Experiencing positive emotions, such as gratitude, may naturally lead to an expansion of students’ positive thoughts and actions. Gratitude may also lead them to remember more positive aspects of their social interactions. Either way, gratitude seems to orient us toward building and strengthening our relationships rather than tearing them down.

Knowing this, we as parents and educators can help to stop cyberbullying before it starts by arming students with the power of gratitude. And just like the program from the study, it doesn’t have to be long and complicated. Simple traditions like writing a gratitude letter to a classmate or writing down three good things that happened in school that day can go a long way. And if teachers want to go deeper, there are various gratitude activities and even a curriculum that they can follow.

While these results are exciting, there is still much to learn about how gratitude can help adolescents avoid cyberaggression and the damage that it does to their relationships. The participants were all from one region of Spain, and the gratitude training was only four hours long. It will be important to try this type of program with adolescents from diverse backgrounds, and it is also possible that a longer program could create even more powerful benefits as young people have a chance to reflect on and practice gratitude in their daily lives.

If that is the case, hopefully schools and other youth development programs can find ways to foster gratitude among adolescents so that they can use their online interactions to rebuild and strengthen the social bonds that are clearly such a critical piece of adolescent thriving.

  • Gratitude for Tweens and Teens

    A series of research-tested lessons that introduces gratitude to middle and high school students.

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