Cyberbullying puts targeted adolescents at risk for suicide, study suggests

Beyond the many stressors that young adolescents face, being a target of cyberbullying is an independent risk factor for suicide -- above and beyond traditional offline bullying, according to a study released Monday.

That's the finding of a new study by researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Lifespan Brain Institute and the University of Pennsylvania published Monday in JAMA Network Open.

"Cyberbullying above and beyond traditional offline bullying is an independent risk factor for suicidality, and we as a society need to be mindful of it," Dr. Ran Barzilay, the study's senior author, told UPI.

Barzilay is assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Children through adolescence should be routinely screened for cyberbullying to mitigate suicide risk, he said.

"Even when someone denies being bullied, you should still ask whether they're being cyberbullied," Barzilay said. "That's the bottom line."

The study "underscores the negative impact that bullying in the virtual space can have on its targets" at a time when young adolescents are spending more time online than ever before, he said.

He added added that the idea is not to compare cyberbullying to traditional offline bullying.

"It's not a horse race to compare what's worse. We know that bullying is bad for mental health," he said. "We wanted to know whether cyberbullying is a risk factor, and the answer is a big time 'yes.'"

Researchers pointed out that suicide rates among children have been steadily increasing.

Nationwide, suicide was the second leading cause of death among children between the ages of 10 and 14 in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, a substantial proportion of peer interaction, including bullying, occurs online, through text messages or social media platforms, researchers said. However, prior to this study, it was not clear whether being a target of cyberbullying is an independent risk factor for suicidality.

The researchers in Philadelphia collaborated with Anat Brunstein Klomek at Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at Reichman University in Israel, and together they analyzed data collected between July 2018 and January 2021 from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, a diverse sample of roughly 10,400 U.S. children between the ages of 10 and 13.

As part of the study, participants filled out a cyberbullying questionnaire, asking whether they had ever been a target or perpetrator of cyberbullying.

Of the children participating in the large study, 7.6% said they had experienced suicidal thoughts or acts, 8.9% reported being targets of cyberbullying, and 0.9% reported cyberbullying others.

The researchers found that being a target of cyberbullying was associated with suicidality, whereas being a perpetrator of cyberbullying was not.

By contrast, with traditional offline bullying, being either a target or perpetrator of bullying is linked with suicidality.

Barzilay said it is important to strike a balance -- so as "not to draw panic or ignore reality" -- from the new research, whose findings "strengthen the suspected link" between being a cyberbullying target and having thoughts of suicide or acting on it.

The idea is to set cyberbullying apart from other risk factors for suicide and promote having children regularly evaluated for it.
"It's something we as a society need to be aware of," he said.