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Snapshot Science: Is There a Link Between Cyberbullying and Suicidality in Early Adolescence?

Published on June 27, 2022 in Cornerstone Blog · Last Updated 3 months 2 weeks ago
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Paul Offit, MD

A substantial proportion of peer interaction, including bullying, occurs online, through text messages or social media platforms.

The findings:

Researchers from the Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI) of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania found that adolescents who are cyberbullied are more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts — an association that goes beyond the link between suicidality and traditional offline bullying — and supports the concept that cyberbullying is a distinct phenomenon.

The study team also discovered that being a target of cyberbullying was associated with suicidality, but being a perpetrator of cyberbullying was not. That finding was distinct from traditional offline bullying, where being either a target or perpetrator of bullying is linked with suicidality.

Why it matters:

Suicide rates among children have been rising steadily. In 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though the factors contributing to suicidality in children and adolescents are not fully understood, research has shown environmental stressors play a role. Two well-established suicide risk factors for youth are traditional bullying and peer victimization. But, in recent times, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, a substantial proportion of peer interaction, including bullying, occurs online, through text messages or social media platforms. However, prior to this study, it was not clear whether being a target of cyberbullying is an independent risk factor for suicidality.

Who conducted the study:

Ran Barzilay, MD, PhD

Ran Barzilay, MD, PhD

Senior author Ran Barzilay, MD, PhD, is assistant professor at LiBI and an attending psychiatrist at CHOP. Also contributing were researchers from LiBI and CHOP's Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, including Psychiatrist-in-Chief Tami Benton, MD, as well as Anat Brunstein Klomek, PhD, from the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at Reichman University in Israel.

How they did it:

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 10,000 American children between the ages of 10 and 13.

As part of the ABCD Study, participants filled out a cyberbullying questionnaire, which asked whether they had ever been a target or perpetrator of cyberbullying, defined 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)." Traditional offline bullying was surveyed through a separate questionnaire, which broke down behavior 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.

To determine suicidality, the researchers examined whether participants reported past or current suicidal thoughts or acts. Of the 10,414 ABCD Study participants included in this study, 7.6% responded that they had experienced suicidal thoughts or acts, nearly 9% reported being targets of cyberbullying, and fewer than 1% reported cyberbullying others.

Quick thoughts:

"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," Dr. Barzilay said. "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."

Where the study was published:

The study appears in JAMA Network Open.

Want to learn more?

Read more in this CHOP press release.