Children and teenagers who are bullied are twice as likely to contemplate suicide as other children, according to a new review of dozens of previous studies on the psychological tolls of being harassed, taunted, and otherwise ostracized by one’s peers. Strikingly, analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics also finds that cyberbullying is even more harmful for young Americans’ mental well-being. Children who have faced online harassment are three times as likely to contemplate suicide.
Cyberbullying has become increasingly problematic in youth culture as schoolyard gossip shifts to online forums and social media platforms, some of which allow users to engage in emotional taunting while maintaining anonymity. Last fall, Florida authorities arrested two girls, aged 12 and 14, on felony charges after their online bullying of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick allegedly caused the girl to commit suicide by jumping from an abandoned cement tower. More recently, Daisy Coleman — the 14-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a Maryville high school football player two years ago — tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills after being mocked on Facebook as a “hypocrite” and “slut” for attending a party.
The new JAMA study’s authors say that cyberbullying has unique elements that may make it more harmful than other types of bullying. “With cyberbulling, victims may feel they’ve been denigrated in front of a wider audience,” said lead study author Mitch van Geel in an interview accompanying the analysis. “[And material] can be stored online, which may cause victims to relive the denigrating experience more often.”
Cyberbullying also presents more of a danger to girls and LGBT youth than it does to other young people. While boys in the U.S. are more likely to engage in physical violence and bullying, girls are significantly more likely to be both the perpetrators and the victims of online bullying, according to data from the Cyberbullying Research Center. The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports that LGBT children are cyberbullied at three times the rate of other kids, and that more than 40 percent of LGBT youth have been bullied online.
States can take action to bolster anti-cyberbullying measures. Although many states consider “electronic harassment” to be bullying, just 18 states specifically mention “cyberbullying” in protective statutes. A mere 12 states impose criminal sanctions on cyberbullies.
Advocacy groups also stress the need for parents to familiarize themselves with their children’s Internet habits and social media interactions while minimizing the stigma associated with being a victim of the harassment.