Cyberbullying and Suicidality Among U.S. Pre-Teens

We recently published an article on the relationship between bullying, cyberbullying, and suicidality among teenagers in the U.S. and Canada. In that article, we reported on the prevalence rates of bullying in the U.S. and Canada and defined the primary types of bullying teens experience.

Here’s a quick summary of the information we shared in that article. We’ll start with the data on teens in the U.S.:

  • 20% of high school students reported being bullied at school
  • 15% of high school students report being cyber-bullied during school hours
  • 7% report being cyber-bullied outside of school hours
  • There are four main types of bullying:
    • Physical
    • Verbal
    • Relational
    • Property

Here’s a summary of the information on the teens in the Canadian study:

  • Teens who reported experiencing online bullying/bullying via text were:
    • More than twice as likely to engage in suicidal ideation or attempt suicide at age 13
    • Over four times as likely at age 15
    • More than three times as likely at age 17
  • Teens who reported experiencing online and in-person bullying had higher risk of suicidality than teens who were bullied in-person but not online

For an in-depth explanation of those statistics, details about the four types of bullying, and the relationship between bullying and suicidality among U.S. teens, please read the article we refer to above:

Bullying and Cyberbullying Associated with Higher Risk of Suicide in Teens

In this article, we discuss another recent study on an almost identical topic. This study narrows the research to cyberbullying only – with a small sub-topic of offline bullying – and examines a different age group: pre-adolescents ages 10-13.

That information is important for us learn, because during the pre-adolescent years, children are particularly vulnerable to the damaging consequences of bullying.

Cyberbullying, Middle School, and Suicidality

The study that has our attention right now, called “Association of Cyberbullying Experiences and Perpetration With Suicidality in Early Adolescence” was published in June 2022. Researchers examined data collected from a nationally representative sample of preteens in the U.S. who participated in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study between July 2018 and January 2021. The research question researchers sought to answer was this:

Is involvement in cyberbullying independently associated with suicidality (ideation or attempts) in early adolescence?

First, let’s take a look the study participants:

  • 10,414 pre-adolescents ages 10-13
    • Average age: 12
      • 47.6% female
      • 52.4% male

Now let’s look at the way researchers measured bullying:

  • They used the ABCD Cyber Bullying Questionnaire, which defines 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).”
  • Participants answered yes or no to two simple questions:
    • Have you ever been the victim of online bullying?
    • Have you ever been a perpetrator of online bullying?
  • To measure offline bullying, researchers used the Peer Experiences Questionnaire, and ranked answers to the following questions:
    • Have you ever been the victim of in-person physical, verbal, relational, or property bullying?
    • Have you ever been the perpetrator of in-person physical, verbal, relational, or property bullying?

Here’s what the researchers found.

Cyberbullying and Suicidality Among U.S. Pre-Teens

  • 8.9% reported experiencing cyberbullying
  • 0.9% reported perpetrating cyberbullying
  • 7.6% reported suicidality, which means:
    • Suicidal ideation: thinking or talking about taking one’s own life
    • Suicide attempt: trying to take one’s own life
  • Of the perpetrators:
    • 69% reported experiencing cyberbullying
  • Those who experienced cyberbullying were 320% more likely to engage in suicidal ideation or attempt suicide
  • Those who perpetrated cyberbullying did not have increased risk of suicidal ideation or suicide attempts
  • Being both a target and perpetrator of offline peer aggression increased risk of suicidality

One aspect of this study that contributes to our overall knowledge about the relationship between cyberbullying and suicidality is the questions about the perpetrators. Of note, 69 percent of perpetrators of cyberbullying reported being victims of cyberbullying, but those who perpetrated cyberbullying – whether victims or not – did not show an increased likelihood of suicidality.

Cyberbullying, Middle Schoolers, and Suicidality: What We Need to Know

The study authors identified three important takeaways from this study, which they label as “clinically informative insights.” Here’s how they describe their three major findings:

  1. Cyberbullying and in-person peer aggression experiences do not completely overlap. Most middle schoolers who report experiencing cyberbullying do not report being victims or perpetrators of in-person, offline bullying.
      • This supports the idea that online bullying is a separate phenomenon than offline bullying/peer aggression. This also:
        • Creates a distinction between victims of cyberbullying and victims of offline bullying
        • Clarifies the importance of screening of cyberbullying when screening for suicide risk among middle schoolers
  1. Cyberbullying victims and perpetrators have different suicidality risks.
      • Victims of cyberbullying had increased risk of suicidality
      • Perpetrators of cyberbullying did not have increased risk of suicidality
        • Being both victim and perpetrator of cyberbullying increased risk of suicidality
      • Victims of offline bullying had increased risk of suicidality
      • Perpetrators of offline bullying also had increased risk of suicidality
      • Being both victim and perpetrator of offline bullying increased risk of suicidality
  2. Cyberbullying experiences are associated with adolescent suicidality, independent of experiencing offline peer aggression.

The results of this study are useful for parents, teachers, and therapists who working with middle schoolers. They not only expand our understating of cyber- and in-person bullying as distinct phenomenon with different consequences, but also expand our understating of the differential effect of cyber- and in-person bullying perpetration and victimization. Here’s what we mean: being a perpetrator of cyberbullying did not increase risk of suicidality, whereas being both a victim and perpetrator increased risk of suicidality. In contrast, being either a victim, perpetrator, or both victim and perpetrator of in-person bullying increased risk of suicidality.

Why This Study Matters

This study matters because teen suicide is a serious problem in the U.S., and it’s getting worse. In 2014, suicide became the second leading cause of death for teens in the U.S. IN addition, here’s the latest data on teen suicide in the U.S. We’ve shared this data before, but to understand why this study matters, it helps to foreground these disturbing statistics.

In 2019:

  • 8.9% of high school students reported a suicide attempt
  • 18.8% reported seriously considering suicide
  • 3,703 teens in grades 9-12 attempted suicide every day

Therefore, any data that helps us understand or explain these trends can help us prevent the continuing increase in youth and teen suicide. In the words of the study authors, interviewed in the online magazine Science Daily:

“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. 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.”

We agree one hundred percent. We would have summarized these finding exactly the same way. Teen suicide is on the rise, and to understand why, information on the online experiences of pre-teens can help us form a comprehensive picture of the factors at play in their online and offline lives. We can screen pre-teens for online bullying. If they report online bullying, that means we can screen for suicide risk. If screening indicates suicide risk, then we can intervene with appropriate support in the form of therapy, counseling, and peer management strategies.

In that way, we have a chance of mitigating the negative impact of online bullying before it leads to suicidality. That will help all of our teens and families, and aligns with our maxim the sooner a teen who needs support gets the support they need, the better the outcome.