A Florida Tragedy Illustrates Rising Concern About Cyber-Bullying Suicides

Preteen suicides and online harassment are becoming a focus for prevention experts

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Rebecca Sedwick is pictured in this undated handout photo courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office in Florida.
Polk County Sheriff's Office / Reuters

Rebecca Sedwick is pictured in this undated handout photo courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office in Florida.

On Monday, two Florida girls – one 12, the other 14 – were arrested on aggravated stalking charges after the death of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who committed suicide last month.

Authorities say the two girls repeatedly cyberbullied the Lakeland, Fla., girl. One of them even wrote on Facebook: “I bullied Rebecca nd (sic) she killed herself.”

Such incidents are rare, but they’re the kind of episodes many prevention experts are increasingly worried about.

From 2007 to 2010, the suicide rates for pre-teens and teens steadily inched up. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate for those aged 5 to 14 was 0.7 (per 100,000 population) in 2010, up from 0.5 in 2007. For teens, the rate was 10.5, up from 9.7 in 2007, the highest rate it’s been in more than a decade.

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Suicide rates have been rising among almost every demographic group for the last several years. While the economic downturn is routinely blamed by many suicide researchers for the increase, for those under 24, experts often link the rise in rates to bullying – especially via social media.

For 15- to 24-year-olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death, and a 2008 review of bullying research by the Yale School of Medicine confirmed links between suicide and bullying, with some studies showing that bullying victims were anywhere from two to nine times more likely to report thoughts of suicide.

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A number of states, in turn, have instituted anti-bullying programs. Thirty public schools in Arizona participated in a pilot program this year focusing on character-building in the classroom. Wisconsin recently announced a statewide effort to provide teachers with resources to avoid and resolve conflicts in schools.

Anti-bullying hotlines have also come online in recent years. In New York City, the BRAVEline has been in operation since 2011 and came about after the local chapter of the United Federation of Teachers noticed an increase in bullying in its schools. In addition to the hotline, teens and preteens can also use chat and text to engage with a crisis counselor.

“I’ve gotten calls from 7-year-olds on the bullying line,” Gloria Jetter, a New York City-based crisis counselor, told me for a previous Time.com story about suicide prevention efforts. “Because of technology, social media, Facebook, that makes you a target for bullying. They’re online. They’re much more autonomous. You used to be safe because you just went home and you didn’t have people talking about you on Facebook to hurt your feelings.”

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Derick Kerr, another New York City crisis counselor, told me that in coming years there will likely be more focus placed on pre-teens, a demographic that’s increasingly calling the hotline. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was teenagers who often received attention from suicide prevention experts and mental health officials because of the number of shootings at high schools. But the growth of technology use among those 12 and under will likely spur a renewed focus on preteens over the next few years.

It’s difficult to actually track cyberbullying rates, let alone how often bullying is directly related to suicide, but Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, says he’s seen an increase in anecdotal reports.

“These have spurred research attention,” he says. “We are much more aware of prevalence data and relative suicide risk among bullies, teens who are bullied and bully-victims – those who are victimized and who bully.”

Increasing suicide prevention funding for anti-bullying programs has its critics, mostly those who believe people with serious mental health issues should get priority. But over the last several years, suicide prevention efforts have increasingly focused on helping at-risk people before suicidal ideation enters their minds. Anti-bullying programs and hotlines are part of that movement.

But the growth of anti-bullying programs may have negative effects, too. According to a study published last month in the Journal of Criminology, researchers found that students at schools that have implemented anti-bullying efforts may be more likely to get bullied. One reason researchers give: The programs may teach bullies how to be more effective tormentors.

MOREHow Bullying’s Effects Reach Beyond Childhood

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