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Regular family dinners can act as a protective buffer against the mental health effects of cyberbullying in adolescents, a new study says.

A McGill University study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that rates of anxiety, depression, self harm, suicidal thoughts and substance-use in adolescents increased when they were bullied online and those who took part in fewer family dinners had the greatest risk. For example, adolescents who were cyberbullied and had zero family dinners per week saw a seven-fold increase in the rates of these problems compared to a four-fold increase for those who had four or more weekly dinners with their family.

"Those families that protect this time and make this a regular routine do offer that protective effect for their kids," said Dr. Frank Elgar, lead author of the study and a psychiatry professor at McGill University.

With more frequent dinners comes more regular family contact, which fosters parental guidance, open communication with parents and siblings and opportunities for youth to express problems and concerns as they arise, the study says.

"Checking in with teenagers [at dinner] about their online lives can be beneficial – it gives them opportunities to talk about problems that they're facing and ways of coping with them," Dr. Elgar said.

On average, about 20 per cent of children and youth in grades six to 10 in Canada report being cyberbullied, said Dr. Wendy Craig, a psychology professor at Queen's University who was also involved in the study.

Girls generally report higher levels of cyberbullying than boys, she said, because they are more likely to go online at an earlier age to sustain relationships and communicate with their friends, whereas boys use electronics primarily for gaming. By Grade 10, both genders report equal levels.

Cyberbullying has a greater impact on adolescents' mental health over and above face-to-face bullying because of the unique online context, Dr. Craig said.

"In social media, the information is out there forever, the information is perceived to be anonymous by those who post it, and the child who's been cyber-victimized doesn't know who's seen that information so they develop this greater sense of anxiety," she said.

Dr. Elgar added: "It's insidious, it doesn't leave you when you go home from school, it goes with you wherever you are."

While not all families are able to sit down at the table together when dinner time rolls around, Dr. Elgar said protective family contact can come in other ways throughout the day, like shared breakfasts or during the morning school run.

"The point here is just checking in with them, not matter how it occurs, where it occurs – that's the important bit," he said.

Indeed, the study concludes family dinners are a proxy of several contextual factors including communication and family cohesion that support and protect adolescent health.

But Dr. Craig said quality time is more important than quantity when it comes to reducing the risks of cyberbullying on mental health.

"It's not just time spent, it's about time spent focusing on one another and focusing on each other's lives. It's not just a catch up between events, it's actually making a deliberate time where you come together," she said.

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