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Peer bullying strongly linked to increased suicide risk, new study finds

Dutch researchers add to a growing body of evidence that peer victimization, particularly via cyberbullying, is a significant risk factor for suicide among youths.

The study found that young people who are victims of bullying are more than twice as likely to contemplate suicide and about 2.5 times as likely to attempt a suicide than other people their age.

While Minnesota legislators debate changes this week to the state’s anti-bullying bill, a study published online Monday in JAMA Pediatrics offers yet more evidence that children and teens who are bullied by their peers are significantly more likely to think about or attempt suicide.

Specifically, the study found that young people who are victims of bullying are more than twice as likely to contemplate suicide and about 2.5 times as likely to attempt a suicide than other people their age.

Cyberbullying (being bullied via e-mail, text messages, or comments and videos posted to social media sites) may pose an even greater danger. The study found that victims of this online form of harassment and ostracization are three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts as young people who do not experience it.

“This might be because with cyberbullying, victims might think that they have been denigrated in front of a wider audience, and materials can be stored online that may cause victims to relive denigrating experiences more often,” said lead author Mitch van Geel of Leiden University in the Netherlands, in an audio interview released with the study.

A hundred years of research

The new study was a meta-analysis. Van Geel and his Dutch colleagues examined all the scientific studies published on bullying between 1910 and 2013. (For the older studies, the researchers had to use search terms such as “mobbing” and “ragging.”) They looked at studies that had been published in many forms, including dissertations and book chapters, and in seven different languages.

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The researchers ended up with 491 studies. They then narrowed those to ones that involved only peer victimization — and that were scientifically well designed and conducted.

In the end, van Geel and his colleagues identified 34 solid studies that focused on the issue of peer bullying and suicide ideation (thinking about suicide) and nine studies that examined the association between peer bullying and suicide attempts. Together, these two groups of studies included more than 350,000 young people aged 9 to 21.

By pooling and analyzing the results of all these studies, van Geel and his colleagues estimated that being bullied increased a young person’s risk of attempting suicide by a factor of 2.55 and of thinking about suicide by a factor of 2.23.

The researchers also found that the effects of bullying are not more severe for girls than for boys or for young children more than teens, as previous research has suggested.

When the suicide ideation data was broken down into in-person and cyberbullying categories, it revealed that cyberbullying raised the risk even more. Young people who were bullied in person were 2.16 times more likely to think about suicide, while those who were cyberbullied were 3.12 times more likely to do so.

Van Geel and his colleagues say the cyberbullying figure must be viewed with caution, however, as only three studies in their analysis looked at that form of harassment.

Another interesting finding from the study involved young people who were both bullies and the victims of bullying. The analysis found they were 2.35 times more likely to think about suicide than others their age. (There were not enough studies to determine the attempted-suicide risk for this group of children.)

An important risk factor 

As the Dutch researchers note in the introduction to their study, “a large body of research now suggests that peer victimization is an important risk factor for adolescent suicide.

“Depending on the country of residence, between 5% and 20% of children are victims of bullying,” they add.

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Each year in the United States, between 5 percent and 8 percent of young people attempt suicide. And each year, tragically, about 4,600 succeed, making suicide the third-leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24.

But suicide is not the only health risk that results from bullying. As I reported here earlier this year, a University of Minnesota study found that children who are harassed because of their weight, sex, race or socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to develop unhealthy and self-harming behaviors than their non-bullied peers.

“Efforts should continue to identify and help victims of bullying, as well as to create bullying prevention and intervention programs that work,” van Geel and his colleagues write in their study’s conclusion.

And schools in particular, says van Geel in his audio interview, “should take every effort to reduce and prevent bullying.”

You can both read the study and listen to van Geel’s interview on the JAMA Pediatrics website.