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Hannah Smith: What exactly is cyberbullying and how prevalent is it?

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There’s a lot of insight in the SPRC’s issue brief about the relationship between bullying and suicide, starting on p. 2, and more recently from a study presented at the 2012 annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which looked at both online and offline bullying in relation to suicide in 41 cases in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

The study’s author, John LeBlanc, MD, found that “78% of adolescents who committed suicide were bullied both at school and online, and only 17% were targeted online only.” So, he continued in the AAP’s press release, “cyberbullying is a factor in some suicides, but almost always there are other factors such as mental illness or face-to-face bullying.” 

Formspring.me (an older US-based Q&A site allowing anonymity like the Latvia-based Ask.fm cited in the coverage of Hannah Smith’s case) and Facebook were specifically mentioned in 21 of the 41 cases Dr. LeBlanc reviewed. Text or video messaging was involved in 14 of the cases. About the anonymity factor: “Certain social media, by virtue of allowing anonymity, may encourage cyberbullying,” LeBlanc added.

Social media

So while multiple sources – doctors, researchers, and bullying prevention experts – caution against focusing on a single factor such as cyberbullying in suicide, cyberbullying and even social media are the focus of speculation about the cause of Hannah Smith’s suicide.

It’s understandable that people fear or focus reflexively on what they understand the least, but we now have enough research to understand social media as more of a mirror than a cause – a mirror reflecting a growing proportion of human interaction and behavior, positive, negative, and neutral.

When it’s negative – and it’s news reporters’ job to report what’s rare, e.g., airline crashes not safe landings – the strength of our reaction is understandably proportionate to how disturbing the image is.

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