Cyberbullying, defined as bullying using electronic means, has been speculatively linked to suicide by the media and popular literature in spite of lack of clarity in the scientific literature. We analyzed media reports about youth suicides in order to describe the multifactorial nature of suicide and the role of social media in such cases.
We used English language terms to search Google, Google News and Factiva databases for reports of persons of any age who committed suicide where cyberbullying was mentioned. For each individual identified, we then conducted individual-specific searches of online news media to collect available information about the individual, his or her circumstances and the suicide event. Descriptive statistics were used to assess the rate of pre- or co-existing mental illness, the co-occurrence of other forms of bullying and the characteristics of the electronic media associated with each suicide case.
We identified 41 cases (24 female, 17 male; aged 13 – 18) from the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Media reports identified that 12% of cases were homosexual, and that an additional 12% of cases, whose sexual orientation was heterosexual or unknown, were subjected to homophobic bullying. Suicides most frequently occurred in September (15%) and January (12%) (p = 0.60). Incidence of reported cases increased over time with 56% having occurred from 2003 to 2010 compared to 44% from 2011-01-01 to the study end-date of 2012-04-30. 78% of adolescents were bullied both at school and online and 17% were only targeted online. A mood disorder was reported in 32% and depression symptoms were reported in an additional 15% of cases. 37% of the cases were reported to have been acting normally immediately prior to the suicide. Cyberbullying occurred through various media, with Formspring.me and Facebook.com being mentioned in 21 cases and text- or video-messaging being involved in 14 cases.
Suicide with a cyberbullying link was more common in females compared to males (as opposed to all adolescent suicides being more common in males). It's noteworthy that all cases were between the ages of 13 and 18. The presence of a mental illness was common. The start of the school year and the winter term may be associated with increased risk of suicide for adolescents although this was not statistically significant in this small sample. Cyberbullying was only rarely the sole type of bullying, and social networking sites were identified as key avenues for cyberbullying. Given that adolescents are particularly susceptible to cyberbullying, efforts should be directed towards reducing bullying activity, encouraging them to intervene positively when bullying occurs and reducing the attractiveness of social media for bullying activity especially anonymity.