Bullying, Cyberbullying and Teen Suicide
While there is much still to learn about the complex problems of bullying and suicide in youth, what is clear is that acts of bullying and suicide are linked.
What Is Bullying and Cyberbullying?
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)), "Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose."
Bullying can happen in-person or bullying can happen via technology which is known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can be just as devastating as in-person bullying. Bullying and cyberbullying are known to negatively impact mental health and general wellbeing long-term. This is true for those who bully, those who are the targets of bullies and even bystanders.
The Link Between Bullying and Suicide
We know that bullying behavior (both by the bully and target) is linked to suicidal behavior, be it attempts, ideations or completions. This means that youth involved in bullying are more likely to report suicidal behavior than those who aren't. It is important to note, though, that we do not know that bullying causes suicidal behavior and most people involved in bullying do not engage in suicide-related behavior.
Bullying Suicide Statistics
According to a study out of Yale University, victims of bullying are 7-9% more likely to consider suicide than those who are not bullied and studies out of Britain have shown that half of all suicides among youth are related to bullying.
According to NoBullying.org, 81% of teens admit that bullying is easier to get away with online and about 20% of kids who are cyberbullied think about suicide.
Bullying Suicide Story
Many cases of bullying and suicide or cyberbullying and suicide have led to national or even international attention. The Ryan Halligen bullying suicide story was one such case:
. . . early concerns about Ryan's speech, language and motor skills development led to him receiving special education services from pre-school through the fourth grade. Ryan's academic and physical struggles made him the regular target of a particular bully at school between the fifth and seventh grade. In February 2003, a fight between Ryan and the bully not only ended the harassment at school, but led to a supposed friendship.
However, after Ryan shared an embarrassing personal story, the newly found friend returned to being a bully and used the information to start a rumor that Ryan was gay. The taunting continued into the summer of 2003, although Ryan thought that he had struck a friendship with a pretty, popular girl through AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Instead, he later learned that the girl and her friends thought it would be funny to make Ryan think the girl liked him and use it to have him share more personally embarrassing material—which was copied and pasted into AIM exchanges with her friends. On October 7, 2003, Ryan hanged himself in the family bathroom. After his son's death, John discovered a folder filled with IM exchanges throughout that summer that made him realize "that technology was being utilized as weapons far more effective and reaching [than] the simple ones we had as kids."
What To Do About Bullying, Cyberbullying and Suicide
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, research shows there are things that can protect teens against bullying and suicide:
- Youth who feel connected to their school are less likely to engage in suicide-related behaviors.
- Youth who are able to cope with problems in healthy ways and solve problems peacefully are less likely to engage in suicide and bullying-related behaviors.
- Youth with disabilities, learning differences, sexual/gender identity differences or cultural differences are often most vulnerable to being bullied. Teaching youth to accept differences can go a long way to stop the bullying of these groups.
Parents, schools and teachers can use the research to guide policy and better help youth with connectedness, inclusiveness and peaceful problem-solving skills.
Last Updated: 11 September 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD