School-age children who are bullied are more than twice as likely as peers who aren’t bullied to have suicidal thoughts and to make suicide attempts, according to a paper released Monday.
The research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, also reports that cyberbullying is even more correlated to a heightened risk of suicidal thoughts and actions – a finding soberly on-point with recent news of young people killing themselves after bullies went after them in cyberspace.
“Bullying is indeed an important risk factor for one of the most prevalent causes for adolescent mortality,” said Mitch van Geel, one of the researchers, in an audio interview posted with the article on the Journal of the American Medical Association’s website.
In the research, a Netherlands-based team gathered 34 prior studies examining bullying and suicidal thoughts in a total of 284,375 participants between 9 and 21 years old. The team also looked at another nine studies addressing the relationship between bullying and suicide attempts in total of 70,102 participants between the same ages.
Based on that aggregated data, children who were bullied were about 2.23 times as likely to think about committing suicide and about 2.55 times more likely to attempt suicide, the researchers found. The results did not change when reanalyzed based on sex and age, the researchers reported.
But when those numbers were retallied to assess the relationship between in-person and cyber bullying, the possible consequences of teasing and taunting became all the more alarming.
Being bullied in person increases a child’s risk of thinking about suicide by about 2.16 times, according to the report. But being bullied online or over texts more than triples the likelihood that the child will think about killing him or herself, according to the papers.
“This might be because with cyberbulling, victims may feel they’ve been denigrated in front of a wider audience,” Dr. van Geel said. “Because the event is stored on the Internet, they may relive denigrating experiences more often.”
An estimated 15 to 20 percent of adolescents are involved in bullying, either as a bully, a victim, or both, according to the paper. And about 5 to 8 percent of US teenagers attempt to kill themselves each year, the paper said.
In general, researchers note that although they see correlations between bullying and suicide, one does not necessarily directly cause the other, and other factors come into play.
In September, Rebecca Sedwick, aged 12, climbed to the top of a cement plant tower in central Florida and jumped. Polk County prosecutors initially pressed felony charges against two girls, aged 14 and 12, who had sent Rebecca thousands of Facebook messages in the year before her suicide, calling her ugly and urging her to kill herself.
One of them posted a flip Facebook status after Rebecca’s jump saying that that, yes, she had bullied her schoolmate to death, but she didn’t care.
The office later dropped the charges when an analysis of the messages failed to turn up enough evidence to tie the bullying to Rebecca’s death, highlighting the difficulties inherent in going after cyberbullying perpetrators, since identifying the reasons for suicide is often an inexact science.
Following Rebecca’s suicide, as well as that of other students across the United States, advocates have called for schools to meet head-on the fact that new technologies are providing 24-hour opportunities, as well as almost boundless portals, for bullies to get to their victims. Advocates have pressed schools to extend their responsibilities to protect students into those unpoliced digital spaces.
Still, others have said that keeping tabs on students online is a somewhat herculean undertaking for schools, given the breadth of digital terrain over which students’ private lives tumble and unfold. It is also a task beset with questions about just how far a school can legally go in keeping watch on its students’ behavior off-campus.
Though most states, with the exception of Montana, have legislation on bullying, just 18 states have laws explicitly addressing cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. Also, cyberbullying legislation in each state differs in defining just what constitutes cyberbullying and on clarifying what obligations a school has to address its students’ online behavior off-campus.
A bill put before the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month would take action on the issue at the federal level, requiring schools that get federal funds to institute policies explicitly designed to curb cyberbullying. Govtrack.us, which monitors progress on legislation, lists the bill as having a 1 percent chance of enactment.