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Bullying, cyberbullying & suicide: New study

Links between an increase in suicidal thoughts and bullying are well-established, so the emerging one between suicidal ideation and bullying online and on phones is not surprising but very important. A new study by cyberbullying experts, authors, and Profs. Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin is a vital step toward substantive help for the only age group (10-19) showing “an upward trend” in suicide (compared to the 28.5% decline in suicide for youth overall), and despite a downward trend in traditional bullying.

The common ground for both forms of bullying and suicidal ideation is peer relations. Which tells me that, with cyberbullying too, prevention and intervention need to focus on kids much more than technology. “Experience with peer harassment (most often as a target but also as a perpetrator) contributes to depression, decreased self‐worth, hopelessness, and loneliness – all of which are precursors to suicidal thoughts and behavior,” say Patchin and Hinduja. And at a talk on cyberbullying prevention this morning, Atlanta risk prevention specialist and author Patricia Agatston spoke of how the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts involved both online and offline harassment.

Referring to the online version, Patchin and Hinduja write, “while these incidents are isolated and do not represent the norm, their gravity demands deeper inquiry and understanding. ” In a survey of 2,000 randomly selected middle-schoolers in one of the US’s largest school districts, they found that:

  • Traditional bullying victims were 1.7 times more likely and traditional bullying offenders were 2.1 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who were not traditional victims or offenders.
  • Cyberbullying victims were 1.9 times more likely and cyberbullying offenders were 1.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who were not cyberbullying victims or offenders” (note the vulnerability of bullies as well as targets, school counselors, and the need to care for both).

What are the behaviors?

  • Bullying: the most common form of offending was, “I called another student mean names, made fun of or teased him or her in a hurtful way” (27.7%) and the most common form of victimization was, “Other students told lies or spread false rumors about me and tried to make others dislike me (29.3%).
  • Cyberbullying: The most common form of offending was, “Posted something online about another person to make others laugh” (23.1%) and of victimization was, “Received an upsetting email from someone you know” (18.3%).

The authors conclude that suicide prevention and intervention need to be included in schools’ bullying and cyberbullying response programs. I hope schools will always involve a counselor or psychologist in cyberbullying or bullying investigations as well as prevention education, and make the immediate goal of any investigation not discipline but support for targeted student and then restoration of order.

If there is broad awareness of an incident in the school community, I hope administrators will draw on the strengths and expertise of the whole school community, including parents, to turn incidents into “teachable moments” that allow students themselves to demonstrate that kindness and respect are the norm. I love the story related by Patti Agatston this morning, where, after a boy was bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school, a group of his fellow students wore pink shirts too to show their support. And that was the end of that bullying incident.

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