Victims of bullying were more than twice as likely as other kids to contemplate suicide and about 2.5 times as likely to try to kill themselves, according to a new study that quantifies the emotional effects of being teased, harassed, beaten up or otherwise harmed by one's peers.
Children and teens who were taunted by cyberbullies were especially vulnerable -- they were about three times as likely than other kids to have suicidal thoughts, the study found.
The findings, published online Monday by the journal JAMA Pediatrics, puts the lie to the old adage about sticks and stones. Cases of kids like 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick (who jumped to her death in a cement plant after classmates taunted her and asked "Why are you still alive?") and 15-year-old Jordan Lewis (who shot himself in the chest after being picked on at school) are not just flukes.
Experts believe that as many as 1 in 5 teens is involved in some type of bullying, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among adolescents worldwide. So a team of Dutch researchers decided to investigate the link between the two.
The three researchers scoured the medical literature to find studies published since 1910 that addressed suicide in connection with bullying, teasing, harassment and even "ragging" and "mobbing." Studies published in English, Spanish, German, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Lithuanian were considered for analysis.
In the end, they identified 34 reliable studies that addressed the issues of peer victimization and suicidal ideation. These studies included data on 284,375 people ages 9 to 21. After crunching the numbers, the researchers calculated that kids who were bullied were 2.23 times as likely to think about killing themselves than kids who had not been victimized.
The study authors sliced and diced their large dataset to compare types of bullying. Previous studies had reported that cyberbullying could be just as bad as traditional bullying. But this time, the researchers found cyberbullying was actually worse -- being bullied in person increased one's risk for suicidal ideation by a factor of 2.16, while being bullied via email, via text messages or in videos posted on the Internet raised the risk by a factor of 3.12.
"This might be because with cyberbulling, victims may feel they've been denigrated in front of a wider audience," study leader Mitch van Geel said in an interview posted on the JAMA Pediatrics website. In addition, he said, "material can be stored online, which may cause victims to relive the denigrating experience more often."
When Van Geel and his colleagues broke down the data according to whether children where bullies as well as victims, those who had been on both sides of things were 2.35 times as likely to consider killing themselves than kids who had nothing to do with bullying.
"Peer victimization is related to suicidal ideation for older as well as younger children, boys as well as girls, and victims as well as bully-victims," they wrote.
The researchers also found nine well-conducted studies about bullying and its relationship to suicide attempts. These studies included data on 70,102 people ages 9 to 21. The Dutch researchers ran the numbers and reported that kids and teens who were bullied were 2.55 times as likely to attempt suicide than their counterparts who had not been victimized. (The dataset wasn't big enough to allow for additional analysis based on the type of bullying or other factors, the researchers wrote.)
In the United States, between 5% and 8% of teenagers tries to kill themselves each year. But the problem is global, Van Geel said.
"Suicide is one of the most important reasons for adolescent mortality worldwide," he said. "Schools should take every effort to reduce and prevent bullying."