In the developed world, cyberbullying has become an international phenomenon that has sadly resulted in many young people taking their own lives to end the harassment. In fact, at least nine teenage suicides in the U.S. were linked to cyberbullying in the year 2013 alone. While the decision to take one’s own life is ultimately that of the individual, there are still many things that can be done to help prevent cyberbullying suicide. It all starts with understanding what exactly cyberbullying is in the first place.
Understanding the Problem
In many ways, cyberbullying is more psychologically damaging than in-person bullying. The simple reason is anonymity. Think about it; have you ever posted a nasty comment to someone under a news article because maybe they expressed different political views? Or perhaps they came across as “ignorant” or “stupid” to you, and you felt compelled to let them know. The truth is, most internet users of all ages have said things online at one point or another that they never would say to someone’s face in “real life”.
That’s what internet anonymity does– it allows us to say whatever we want without fear of people knowing it was us that said it. Many news websites have actually started using Facebook as the mandatory comment login in order to help improve the quality of comments, and according to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, in many cases, it’s been working to an extent.
Nevertheless, a lot of people (including many teens) create fake online profiles to conceal their identities while making nasty comments to others. And of course, there are still many who are not afraid to say certain things under their real names– it is these people who do not realize what they are doing is cyberbullying. Still, the anonymous users are the most dangerous, since their veiled identities allow them to say whatever they want without repercussion.
Types of Cyber / Online Bullying
Sadly, the increasing amount of cyberbullying suicide stories teaches us that there are many, many forms of cyberbullying. A lot of the best-known ones include the following:
- Sending bullying messages and/or photos via email, and/or sending repeated messages even when asked to stop
- Sending bullying messages and/or photos to the victim’s cell phone
- Spreading rumours about a person online or through mobile devices
- Posting harmful or inappropriate messages about a person online
- Making mean or inappropriate comments on a person’s online profile/account
- Sending threatening messages to a person via any online or electronic medium
- Using fake profiles to manipulate or harass someone
- Stealing another person’s online account information to pretend to be them and post inappropriate things under their name
- Using a webcam to secretly spy on a person and/or harass them
- Forcing or manipulating another person to send suggestive photos of themselves or “sext” with them (many cyberbullies have even been known to send around suggestive photos of another person against their will, often destroying their reputation as a result)
Regardless of the type of cyberbullying taking place, it is still harmful to others. Go over each of these with your teenager and make sure they know that each one is indeed a form of bullying, and is wrong.
By now you might be thinking something like, “Okay, I get that online harassment or ‘cyberbullying’ exists, but how can someone possibly take their own life as a result?” And that’s okay — many people who have never considered suicide themselves have difficulty comprehending it. While suicide rates have actually decreased by over 28 percent in young people in general, upward trends have been noted in the 10 to 19 age group. And according to a 2010 study from the Cyberbullying Research Center, youth who were shown to be at greater risk for suicide were also those who experienced repeated cyberbullying.
Here’s what the cyberbullying suicide statistics (at bullyingstatistics.org) tell us:
- Both girls and boys are likely to experience cyberbullying (and participate in it) — contrary to popular belief, cyberbullying is not gender-specific
- Cyberbullying has been reported among teens of all racial backgrounds and socioeconomic classes
- Over 50 percent of teens have experienced cyberbullying, and about the same percentage have engaged in it
- Both offenders and victims are at risk for suicide, and many teens are both a victim and a perpetrator (getting harassing comments, while making their own nasty comments to others)
- Only about one in 10 teen victims actually tells their parents or other adults that they have experienced cyberbullying
- Victims of cyberbullying are more likely than other teens to be depressed and worse, to consider suicide as an option
- About 80 percent of teens use cell phones on a regular basis, and thanks to Smartphones, this is among the most popular ways to engage in cyberbullying
Contrary to popular belief (especially among teenagers) that what you say online cannot come back to haunt you, there have been an increasing number of legal cases that say otherwise. More and more countries, including both the United States and the United Kingdom, are adopting anti-cyber bullying laws that declare online bullying as another form of harassment and enforce stricter punishments (in the U.S., all of the individual state-by-state laws can be viewed at NCSL.org).
While someone can be charged with harassment simply for making nasty online comments, things get much more serious if their victim commits suicide. In many cyberbullying suicide cases, the perpetrators are charged with felonies.
For example, in 2013 two teenage girls in Florida were charged as such after 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide after online comments repeatedly told her to kill herself. And it’s not just an issue in high school and middle school– just a year earlier, the state of New Jersey sentenced 20-year-old Dharun Ravi to 30 days in prison, 3 years of probation, 300 hours of community service, a fine of $10,000, and counselling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles for his role in the suicide of his college roommate, Tyler Clementi.
When he was just 19 and Clementi was 18, Ravi had secretly used a webcam to spy on Clementi and subsequently posted a series of harmful twitter posts about him. The harassment and embarrassment over the content provoked Clementi’s leaping to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Teens especially are likely to think they can’t be caught as long as they use a fake name or don’t show their picture when engaging in cyberbullying, but they need to understand that there are many ways to track down the real people behind fake and/or anonymous profiles. And when it comes to cyberbullying suicides among teens, there is definitely going to be an investigation.
What Can Be Done?
The actions of teenagers are ultimately their own. However, there are some steps parents can take to help reduce cyberbullying and cyberbullying suicide:
- Talk to teens about cyberbullying and what a serious problem it is
- Consider waiting to give children a cell phone and their own email addresses until they reach high school, or at the very least late middle school
- Be aware of all of your child’s online profiles, including on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Make sure they understand the privacy settings on each and that they should never give their login information to anybody else, including friends
- Teach teens not to post anything online or send things to friends/significant others that they may regret later on
- Take an active interest in teens’ lives and promote activities that don’t involve constant online use, like sports, dance, etc.
- Encourage teens to spend more time away from their phones and computers, like family meal times, movie nights, game nights, and more
If a teen is already experiencing cyberbullying, there are other things you can do:
- Help them block the person by setting up stricter privacy settings and specifically blocking that person’s profile or email address. In some cases, it may be necessary to get a new phone, email address and/or online profile
- Talk to the bully’s parents (if you know who the bully is)
- If the harassment continues, alert both the school counsellor (if they attend the same school) and the police. This is not something to be taken lightly!
The Bottom Line
The time to take action is now. Whether your teen is the bully or the victim (and again, it is very possible they could be both), it’s time to talk with them about this serious issue and start paying closer attention to their online activities. Let them know that bullying of any kind is never okay, and they should always feel free to come and talk with you about it.