Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people in the US, occurring about 4400 times per year. Only car accidents and homicides kill more American youths. Over 14% of high school students have considered suicide, and nearly 7% have attempted it. Recent news stories have generated interest in the strong link between bullying and suicide, and for good reason. Nearly 30% of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 stay home from school every day because of their fear of being bullied. According to studies by Yale University, bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. And a study in the UK found that bullying was a factor in more than half of suicides among young people.
Whereas bullying used to occur mostly in the classroom or on the playground, social media have opened up a whole new arena for the ugly practice. A poll conducted in 24 countries and published in 2012 found that 12% of parents reported their child had experienced cyberbullying. One in 4 parents said they knew a child in their community who experienced cyberbullying, and of those, 60% said the children experienced the harassment on social networking sites such as Facebook. A Consumer Reports survey conducted in the US in 2011 found that 1 million children over the previous year had been harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook.
The most common forms of cyberbullying include mean or hurtful comments and rumors or photos that are spread online, and adolescent girls appear to bear the brunt of it. We’ve all read or heard about instances of teens committing suicide due to online harassment, but it’s distressing to learn the number of these stories that are out there, and just how much they have in common. Here are just a handful of instances, with common threads noted. Please note that no disrespect is intended by the severely abbreviated descriptions of the lives of these children who have been lost.
* Harassment/Threats received online.
† Nude pictures/videos distributed.
§ Accusations of sexual proclivity (almost always “slut” or “whore”).
‖ Coincident bullying at school.
Jessica Logan: Ex-boyfriend sends nude photo of her to everyone at their high school, leading to cruel harassment for months by classmates. Two months after Jessica tells her story on a Cincinnati television station, her mother finds the 18 year old hanged in her closet.*†§‖
Tyler Clementi: Rutgers University freshman jumps off the George Washington Bridge after a video secretly recorded by his roommate was streamed over the Internet showing a sexual encounter he had with a man in his dorm room.†‡
Ryan Halligan:13-year-old boy kills himself after being ridiculed by peers at school and online. A long-time bully had spread rumors online that he was gay.*‡ ‖
Rachael Neblett: 17-year-old girl receives threatening emails through her MySpace account. After reading one that said, “I am not going to put you in the hospital, I am going to put you in the morgue,” she takes her own life.*
Audrie Pott: California girl hangs herself 8 days after being allegedly assaulted by 3 boys. Pictures of the attack, during which she is said to have been intoxicated and unconscious, were posted online and shared among her high school classmates.*†§
Sarah Lynn Butler: 7th grader hangs herself after being teased at school and receiving bullying messages on her MySpace page.*§‖
Hope Witsell: 13-year-old girl forwards nude photo of herself to her boyfriend. Another student finds it and forwards it to other classmates, resulting in taunting and bullying from her peers. A school counselor observed cuts on Hope’s legs and had her sign a “no-harm” contract, in which Hope agreed to tell an adult if she felt inclined to hurt herself. The next day, Hope hangs herself in her bedroom.*†§‖
Phoebe Prince: 15-year-old Irish immigrant hangs herself after getting cyberbullied and accused of being a slut on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook, and Formspring because she has impending date to a school dance with a senior on the football team. Incredibly, the hurtful messages continued on a Facebook page after her death.*§
Eden Wormer: After enduring 2 years of bullying by her female classmates, the 14-year-old girl hangs herself. Eden had changed her appearance multiple times to fit in with her peers, and she begged her older sister not to report the bullying because she thought it would only make the problem worse. A month before her suicide, Eden wrote on her Facebook page, “”omg im such a loner i dont have a valentines n the only thing im celebrating valentines day with is my bummble bee pillow pet. like this iff u hhave no valentines too or iff u wanna be my valentine. :).” After her death, a friend wrote on Eden’s Facebook page, “I wish it didn’t take people this long to realize how beautiful you are and how unique you are. You are the sweetest girl in the world. I wish you knew you didn’t have to fit in. It’s good to stand out.”
Grace McComas: High school sophomore kills herself due to a months-long campaign of cyberbullying.*
Kenneth Weishuhn Jr: Gay high school freshman takes his own life after classmates bully him at school and online, and make death threats by phone. The bullying started after
Kenneth came out to classmates, who responded by creating an anti-gay Facebook page.*‡
Megan Meier: 13-year-old girl receives multiple bullying messages from the MySpace account of “Josh,” a 16-year-old boy she met online. Some of Megan’s messages were shared with others, and there were numerous bulletins posted that ridiculed her. The final message from “Josh” said, “Everybody in O’Fallon knows who you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.” Meier responded, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” Her body was found 20 minutes later in her bedroom closet, hanging from a belt.
It was later revealed that the mother of one of Megan’s friends, a girl who Megan had allegedly been spreading gossip about, had created the “Josh” account to use Megan’s messages to obtain information about her and later humiliate her, in retribution for the gossiping. The friend’s mother was convicted of violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Her conviction was reversed on appeal.*§‖
Amanda Todd:In 7th grade, Amanda met a man in an online chat room who convinced her to flash him her breasts. He later contacted her on Facebook and threatened to release the photo if she did not “put on a show” for him. Two years later, the police told her that the man had circulated the picture of her online, and she experienced severe anxiety, depression, and panic disorder due to the ensuing teasing from classmates. Her family was forced to move, and she began using drugs and alcohol.
The next year, the man resurfaced and created a Facebook page, with Amanda’s topless photo as his profile image. The teasing and bullying at school and online began again. She changed schools a second time, but girls from her first school showed up and attacked her, and beat her to the ground while others filmed it. Following the attack, Amanda tried to commit suicide by drinking bleach. After returning from the hospital, Amanda discovered abusive Facebook messages about her suicide attempt. Once again, she moved to a new city, but the bullying started anew, as did further abusive messages on social networking sites. Her depression and anxiety continued despite therapy and antidepressants, and she began to self-mutilate and attempted suicide again.
According to her mother, “Every time she moved schools he would go undercover and become a Facebook friend. What the guy did was he went online to the kids who went to (the new school) and said that he was going to be a new student-that he was starting school the following week and that he wanted some friends and could they friend him on Facebook. He eventually gathered people’s names and sent Amanda’s video to her new school.”
Amanda’s body was found hanged at her home in British Columbia on October 10, 2012.*†§‖
In the past, a bully pushed you off the swing, or maybe spread lies about you around school. But you knew who that bully was, and you knew that you could confront the person. Maybe you tried to reason with the bully, or maybe you screwed up your courage and punched the bully in the nose. Or maybe, your mom told you to just ignore anyone who bullies you. Part of growing up involves learning how to interact with peers, including and especially the ones who are jerks. But social media have provided a new forum where the technology allows bullies to anonymously harass classmates, and spread rumors, private data, photos, and videos to millions of potential viewers with little or no consequence. Having your head shoved in the toilet in front of a few peers is one thing. Having nude photos of yourself available for all humanity to view is quite another.
Fortunately, efforts are underway locally and nationally to combat the epidemic of bullying through legislation, both in the real world and online. Social networking sites have started to implement measures to identify bullying, and Facebook has begun multiple programs, including partnering with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to help users to confront suicide and suicidal thoughts, as well as attempt to detect early warning signs of at-risk users. In addition, they are providing suicide prevention researchers a view into the online lives of the last days of those who have committed suicide. These are prudent steps, but more importantly, an open, honest, and ongoing discussion of bullying must be sustained in our schools, our homes, and particularly by social networking sites that provide the forums for these acts of aggression.
At the date of this writing, in Italy, prosecutors are investigating why Facebook allowed vicious insulting posts considered to be “bullying-posts” to be published on the world’s largest social media site. Italian authorities are currently considering suing Facebook because the company did not remove the posts that led directly to the suicide of 14-year-old Carolina Picchio of Novara, Italy. Carolina wrote on her Facebook page: “Forgive me if I am not strong. I cannot take it any longer.” Shortly afterward, she took her own life by jumping out of her four-story-high bedroom window.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Cyberbullying only rarely the sole factor identified in teen suicides. October 20, 2012. American Academy of Pediatrics Web site. http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Cyberbullying-Only-Rarely-the-Sole-Factor-Identified-in-Teen-Suicides.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token.
- Bullying and Suicide. Bullying Statistics Web site. http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/bullying-and-suicide.html.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide. Facts at a glance. CDC Web site. 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.PDF.
- Collins LM. Suicide and Facebook: a window into the mind of those who die. Deseret News Web site. January 24, 2013. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865571381/Suicide-and-Facebook-A-window-into-the-mind-of-those-who-die.html?pg=all.
- Cyberbullying rampant on the Internet. CyberBully Hotline Web Site. http://www.cyberbullyhotline.com/07-10-12-scourge.html.
- Cyberbullying statistics. PureSight Web site. https://puresight.com/Cyberbullying/cyber-bullying-statistics.html.
- Facebook bullying suicide boy’s parents in law change call. BBC News Web site. July 12, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-14121631.
- Giammona C. California case another three-part tragedy of rape, cyber bullying and suicide. NBC News Web site. April 14, 2013. http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/14/17747411-california-case-another-three-part-tragedy-of-rape-cyber-bullying-and-suicide?lite.
- Kerr D. Facebook boosts efforts on suicide prevention. cnet.com. January 23, 2013. http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57565547-93/facebook-boosts-efforts-on-suicide-prevention/.
- Kotz P. Phoebe Prince, 15, commits suicide after onslaught of cyber-bullying from fellow students. True Crime Report Web site. January 28, 2010. http://www.truecrimereport.com/2010/01/phoebe_prince_15_commits_suici.php.
- Laird S. Cyberbullying: scourge of the Internet. Mashable Web site. July 8, 2012. http://mashable.com/2012/07/08/cyberbullying-infographic/.
- Real life stories. PureSight Web site. http://www.puresight.com/Real-Life-Stories/real-life-stories.html.
- Suicide of Amanda Todd. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Amanda_Todd.
- Suicide of Megan Meier. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Megan_Meier.
- Taylor M. Bullied teen hangs self after writing she loves ‘all my haterz.’ ABC News Web site. March 9, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/US/bullied-teen-commits-suicide-posting-loves-haterz/storynew?id=15887174.
- Teen suicide awareness: statistics. Teachervision Web site. http://www.teachervision.fen.com/education-and-social-issues/mental-health/57131.html.
- Warr P. wired.com. Facebook facing questions over teen girl’s suicide. May 28, 2013. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-05/28/facebook-questions-over-teen-suicide.
- Italy Sues Facebook. Extra Torrent Web site. http://extratorrent.com/article/2978/italy+sues+facebook.html.
- Italy’s Tragic Teen Cyberbullying Suicide. Women in the World Web site. http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2013/05/31/will-italy-sue-facebook-over-cyberbullying-suicide.html.
- Italian prosecutor may put Facebook staff under investigation after girl’s suicide over online ‘bullying.’ Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/10081689/Italian-prosecutor-may-put-Facebook-staff-under-investigation-after-girls-suicide-over-online-bullying.html.