Study: Cyberbullying Linked to Suicide Risk in Adolescents

Jul 2022

teen girl sitting on bridge on cell phone near sunset

Youth suicide prevention has to include addressing bullying online

The connection between bullying, mental health, and suicide risk has been known for some time. In 2008, for instance, a Yale review of studies from 13 countries found that bullying was linked to suicide risk. But the link between specifically online bullying and suicide has been more difficult to pin down. Now, a recent study suggests that online bullying may pose suicide risks above and beyond offline bullying.

According to new research from the Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI) of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania, young adolescents (between ages 10 and 13) who are victims of cyberbullying are more likely to report suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. The study defined cyberbullying as “purposefully trying to harm another person or be mean to them online, in texts or group texts, or on social media (like Instagram or Snapchat).”

The same study also asked about offline bullying, which included behaviors such as threatening, hitting, being deliberately left out of activities, and spreading rumors or gossip. Notably, the researchers found that online and offline bullying only partially overlap; that is, while there are certainly some kids who are victims of both types of bullying, they are distinct behaviors — and cyberbullying itself is an independent suicide risk factor, not merely an extension of offline bullying.

Notably, the study found that while victims of cyberbullying are at an increased risk of suicidality, perpetrators of online bullying are not. This is distinct from offline bullying, where both victims and perpetrators are known to be at increased risk of suicide.

“For policy makers wishing to optimize youth suicide prevention efforts, this study should further encourage interventions for those who are being bullied online,” said senior study author Ran Barzilay, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor at LiBI.

Black youth may be particularly at risk

Online bullying is a problem for youth of all races, but the evidence says it affects certain demographics more than others. For instance, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology found that over the course of 2020, Black youth experienced increases in online racial discrimination, and those experiences were linked to poorer mental health. The study’s authors noted that White nationalist and online terror groups became more active online in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans; that Black youth experienced more online racism during this time; and that there may be a critical period following racial discrimination experiences, as same-day and next-day mental health were particularly adversely affected.

While this study did not examine suicidality specifically, other research has shown that suicides are on the rise among Black youth, and given that we now know there is a link between cyberbullying and suicide risk, it seems likely that online racism is a contributing factor. Youth suicide prevention efforts must include training on racial trauma and targeted interventions to report and address the effects of online hate speech.

A growing potential risk in a rapidly changing world

As young adolescents spend more time online than ever before — a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic — cyberbullying presents a growing threat. Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult threat to manage. While offline bullying usually ends at the end of the school day, children who are cyberbullied may feel like there is no escape; their bullies are on social media 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And adult intervention to stop cyberbullying may be more difficult: social media accounts can be hidden behind privacy settings, and adults may not be familiar enough with online norms and culture to even recognize that bullying is happening.

These problems are not unsolvable, however. Adults have a responsibility to our children to intervene and prevent cyberbullying as well as other behaviors that increase suicide risk. That starts with parents talking to their kids about what they’re experiencing online and schools enforcing anti-bullying policies on the ground and online. It also includes social media platforms, government officials, and medical professionals who screen children for suicidality or treat youth mental health issues.

More must be done to protect our youth, and that includes seeking accountability and justice when the system fails to protect a child. If you lost a child to suicide completion, the Law Offices of Skip Simpson would be honored to listen to your story in a free consultation. We are based in Texas and serve families nationwide.

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