For Young Teens, Cyberbullying Can be Life-Threatening

Just the other day, an 18-year-old Texas high school senior who was subjected to relentless cyberbullying for over a year shot herself in front of her horrified family. Although Brandy Vella had complained to school authorities and the police about fake online sex profiles and abusive text messages, the culprits were never caught. Even after she changed her phone number, they doggedly persisted until they found her. Knowing no other way to escape from ongoing and intolerable pain, this girl took her own life.

Brandy Vella’s heartbreaking story is another reminder that we need to be more effective in preventing cyberbullying—and also in responding more helpfully to victims. My sense that these tragedies among young people are becoming more prevalent, both nationally and within my community, was just confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the first time ever, in 2014—the most recent year for which data are available—more young teens aged 10 to 14 died from suicide than from traffic accidents.

More boys than girls took their own lives, as is true in every age group. But whereas boys’ suicide rate increased by one-third, girls’ suicide rate tripled. The incidence of self-harm is taking a similar turn. Describing trends in violence-related emergency room visits, The Journal of Adolescent Health reported that self-harm of males 10 to 14 grew 5% from 2009 to 2013. For girls, that figure was 38%. Trends are similar for depression, which teen girls experience twice as often as boys.

My own work and research with adolescents confirms the general consensus among professionals that this spike in mental health symptoms is tied to the challenges of social media, which most affect the vulnerable group of middle school girls. Technology is multiplying exponentially their developmental insecurities about appearance and social acceptance.

Identity and popularity have become public and quantifiable. As a result, girls today are preoccupied with creating the most flattering profiles and monitoring how many friends they have, whether people like their Instagram posts, and if they’re excluded from social events that others post. Recently a 15-year-old girl in therapy expressed her distress about losing a close friend who refused to speak to her after she accidentally broke their Snapchat streak.

The false sense of anonymity created by messaging and social media platforms also encourages teens to act more impulsively and cruelly in cyberspace than they do in person, greatly magnifying the traumatic impact on their victims. Thanks to technology, momentary social embarrassments of the past—drinking too much, dropping a tray in the cafeteria, being mocked—have turned into constant documentations of shame from which there is no relief.

Peers can instantly forward provocative or potentially scandalous messages, photos, and videos to the entire school or even larger groups. Because smartphones are always on, not even coming home from school offers young teens a safe haven from intrusive, humiliating, or abusive messages.

Unfortunately, cyberbullying usually occurs outside adults’ awareness. Many perpetrators are technologically savvy enough to cover their tracks, preventing authorities from identifying and stopping them. Unable to depend upon adults for protection, victims feel utterly powerless and hopeless of improving their situations. This creates the perfect storm triggering young people’s self-harming and suicidal behavior.

Besides supporting laws to prevent cyberbullying, we all have a responsibility to guide young users to use social media responsibly, including how to respond to the many challenging situations that arise and ask for help without fear of punishment.

Parents cannot assume that their young teens are safe. No one is immune from being either a perpetrator or a victim of cyberbullying. Parents cannot let kids create Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat accounts and give them free rein to use them any more than they would hand over car keys at age 14 and allow them to drive without training and supervision.

Knowing less than our children about social media doesn’t give parents an out; we simply have work harder to educate ourselves. For starts, try one of the short, clearly written guidebooks offered by ConnectSafely.org or contact the Youth Officer at your local police station for assistance in cyber safety.

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