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  • Teen suicides tied to cyberbullying usually involve real-world harassment 


NEW ORLEANS -- Teen suicides tied to cyberbullying usually stem from real-world harassment as well, an analysis of news stories showed.

Of 41 cyberbullying-related suicides covered in the news since 2003, the victims were subjected to both online and in-person abuse in 78%, according to John LeBlanc, MD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Another 17% involved cyberbullying only and 5% involved traditional in-person bullying only, he reported at the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting here.

"We've always suspected that there is a cumulative factor between cyberbullying and traditional bullying," commented Gwenn O'Keeffe, MD, a pediatrician who heads Pediatrics Now, a health and communications company.

"It's nice to have somebody document what we've been seeing, that kids who are cyberbullied are also bullied, and that when you add the two together, it's really a hornet's nest," said O'Keeffe, a member of the AAP's Council on Communications and Media and one of the lead authors of the academy's clinical report on the impact of social media.

According to LeBlanc, cyberbullying brings to the online world the characteristics of traditional bullying -- power imbalance, intent to harm, and repeated aggression. Cyberbullying has the added problems of allowing the bully to remain anonymous and to perpetrate the abuse at all hours of the day.

To find out what other factors might be involved in cyberbullying-related suicides, LeBlanc and his colleagues used Google and Factiva to identify news stories about such cases and to learn more about the victims. They did not place any restrictions on victim age or other factors.

They identified 41 suicides tied to cyberbullying -- 24 in females and 17 in males -- that occurred from 2003 through April 2012. All of the victims were teens, ranging in age from 13 to 18 (mean 15.1).

The lack of adult cases indicates that "there's something very vulnerable about this age group," LeBlanc said.

Most of the cases (26) occurred in the U.S., with others in Australia (six), the U.K. (five), and Canada (four). The number of cases appeared to increase over time, with the largest number reported last year.

Many of the teens who committed suicide were reported to have struggled with mental health conditions, including mood disorders in 32% and depression in 15%. However, 37% of the teens were reported to have been acting normally before killing themselves.

Cyberbullying was perpetrated through various avenues, including social networking sites, instant messaging, and text, video, or picture messaging.

LeBlanc noted that no interventions have been proven to reduce cyberbullying, but O'Keeffe said that the problem might be mitigated by "getting people to be more polite and to have better digital etiquette," something she wrote about in her book, CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media.

"If you teach people good digital citizenship and good digital etiquette, you decrease digital mishaps," she said.

She said that communicating that message needs to start as soon as children starting poking around on their parents' digital devices.

"If you wait until kids are teens, it's too late," she said. If the message starts being delivered when children are very little, "then as they get older, some of these things won't happen quite as viciously, and when they do happen, the kids can get themselves out of it quicker."

Importantly, O'Keeffe said, parents must take action when they realize their child is being cyberbullied.

"If the parents are brave enough to intervene, we can usually stop the cycle," she said. "Sometimes there's a fine line between something that's just not cool and something that's true bullying, and I think if we stepped in more with those uncool situations, then the true bullying situations wouldn't happen as much."

LeBlanc did not report any conflicts of interest.



Primary source: American Academy of Pediatrics
Source reference:
LeBlanc J, et al "Cyberbullying and suicide: a retrospective analysis of 41 cases" AAP 2012.

Edited by Hi-Finthen - 10/21/12 at 8:38am