Youth who are bullied online are more liable to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide than others who do not experience such bullying, even when accounting for other risk factors such as offline bullying or peer aggression, according to a report in JAMA Network Open.
“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,” senior author Ran Barzilay, M.D., Ph.D., of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said in a news 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.”
The researchers analyzed data from 10,414 U.S. youth aged 10 to 13 years who are participants in Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. The main outcome was youth-reported suicidality, as reported in the ABCD two-year follow-up assessment.
ABCD participants were asked about past and current suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (using the Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia for DSM-5) as well as past experiences of being the victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying. The ABCD Cyber Bully Questionnaire defined cyberbullying 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).” The participants were also asked about their experiences as the victims or perpetrators of offline aggression.
A total of 796 of the participants (7.6%) endorsed suicidality—either suicidal ideation, having made a suicide attempt, or both; 930 participants (8.9%) reported being a target of cyberbullying, and 96 (0.9%) reported being a perpetrator of cyberbullying. Female and Black participants, respectively, were more likely than male participants and participants of any other race or ethnicity to experience cyberbullying.
After controlling for demographics, the researchers found that adolescents who were the targets of cyberbullying were 4.2 times more likely to report suicidality than those who had not. Experiencing cyberbullying remained associated with suicidality when accounting for multiple environmental risk and protective factors previously linked to suicidality in the ABCD study and for psychopathology. In contrast, engaging in cyberbullying was not associated with suicidality.
“For clinicians working directly with adolescents, this work suggests that cyberbullying experiences are associated with suicidality over and above multiple known risk factors; therefore, it may be prudent to ask adolescents about this exposure as part of primary care evaluations,” the authors wrote. “For policymakers wishing to optimize youth suicide prevention efforts, this study should further encourage addressing … cyberbullying experiences in interventions,” they wrote.
For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Youth Online Behavior Offers Clues to Suicidality.”
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