Cyberbullying increases the risk of suicide among children more than ‘traditional’ bullying

PHILADELPHIA — Cyberbullying has a stronger impact on adolescent victims than “traditional,” in-person bullying, a new study reveals. A team from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) says victims of online bullying in early adolescence are more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts, going far beyond that of offline bullying.

Researchers at Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI), the University of Pennsylvania, and Reichman University in Israel looked at the records for more than 10,000 children between 10 and 13.

“Being a target of cyberbullying was associated with suicidality over and above experiences of perpetration of offline peer aggression,” study authors write in the journal JAMA Network Open. “The association with suicidality remained for targets of cyberbullying even when accounting for multiple confounders, including experiences or perpetration of offline peer aggression.”

“At a time when young adolescents are spending more time online than ever before, this study underscores the negative impact that bullying in the virtual space can have on its targets,” adds senior author Ran Barzilay, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at the Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI) of CHOP, in a media release.

“Given these results, it may be prudent for primary care providers to screen for cyberbullying routinely in the same way that they might screen for other suicide risk factors like depression. Educators and parents should also be aware of the substantial stress bullying in the cyberworld places on young adolescents.”

What’s the difference between these forms of bullying?

The suicide rate in children has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2018, it became the second leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 24. One of the surprising results of the study was that online bullying was a different phenomenon in comparison to offline bullying. The team defined online bullying as harmful texts or group texts, or social media posts on platforms like Instagram or Snapchat.

Researchers split offline bullying into three categories: overt aggression, such as threatening or hitting; relational aggression, such as not inviting or leaving someone out; and reputational aggression, such as spreading rumors or gossiping.

Prior to this study, it was not clear whether being a target of cyberbullying is an independent risk factor for suicide as traditional bullying is, due to the stress it causes.

The researchers analyzed data collected between July 2018 and January 2021 from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study (ABCD Study), a diverse sample of over 10,414 American children between the ages of 10 and 13. Of the children in the study, 7.6 percent responded that they had experienced suicidal thoughts or acts, 8.9 percent reported being targets of cyberbullying, and 0.9 percent admitted to cyberbullying others.

The team found that being a target of cyberbullying displayed a connection with suicidality, whereas being the perpetrator of cyberbullying did not. That finding was distinct from traditional offline bullying, where being either a target or perpetrator of bullying showed a link with suicidality.

‘Cyberbullying is a distinct phenomenon’

Additionally, the study finds that being the victim of bullying online only partly overlaps with offline bullying, supporting the notion that cyberbullying is a distinct phenomenon, independent from offline experiences of bullying. This may suggest that youngsters affected by cyberbullying are different from those encountering bullies in the real world.

“We found that cyberbullying experiences only partly overlap with offline peer aggression experiences, with most targets of cyberbullying not reporting being targets or perpetrators of offline peer aggression,” the researchers write.

“This finding supports the notion that cyberbullying is a distinct phenomenon, independent of offline peer aggression experiences and suggests that adolescents affected by cyberbullying are different from those affected by offline peer aggression and screening for cyberbullying experiences may detect youths at risk who are not detected when screening for offline peer aggression experiences.”

“Our findings suggest being a target of cyberbullying is an independent risk factor for youth suicidality,” Dr. Barzilay concludes. “For policy makers wishing to optimize youth suicide prevention efforts, this study should further encourage interventions for those who are being bullied online.”

With the rise of cyberbullying due to the COVID-19 pandemic and more remote communications, the team cautions that more research is necessary to be completely clear as to the effects of the phenomenon.

South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.

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