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Oversimplified: cyberbullying & suicide

The stories pop up on Carol Todd's computer with distressing regularity.

They are tales with an eerily similar template that chronicle the suicides of young people who often had endured the torment of prolonged and relentless online bullying.

In ways, they are much like the story of her own daughter Amanda, a 15-year-old Grade 10 student who took her life a year ago following months of harassment at school and online over images posted on the Internet of her body.

One of the threads tying their deaths together is a cause-and-effect link made by the media, politicians and parents between persistent bullying and the victim's decision to end their life — a phenomenon that generated its own buzzword — "bullycide."

It is something Todd and health experts say oversimplifies teen suicide and cyberbullying at the expense of recognizing the complex set of mental health issues that are usually at play in many cases.

"Amanda's story, when you look at all the different pieces, it's very complicated," Todd said from her home in Port Coquitlam, B.C., adding that her daughter had a learning disability that affected her coping skills.

"I don't really like it when they say Amanda was cyberbullied to death. That wasn't the case and I don't think there's enough supports for kids for mental health issues, which is ultimately why they take their own lives."

Dr. Jitender Sareen, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Manitoba, says much of the coverage gave the facile notion that cyberbullying causes suicide, overlooking possible mental-health issues.

"Being cyberbullied can be the straw that broke the camel's back, but the media and politicians at times simplify the issue to bullying equals suicide," he said in Winnipeg.

"The vast majority of people who get bullied don't die by suicide, just like in hockey the number of people who get concussed don't die by suicide."

Sareen uses the example of someone with a lung disorder who then dies from a common cold to explain that many young people who take their own lives after being bullied had mental-health issues that affected their coping skills.

A 2012 study of 41 cases of teen suicides found that 32 per cent of the teens had a mood disorder, while another 15 per cent had depression symptoms.

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Florida-based Poynter Institute, wrote in a blunt October post that by simplifying the issues, journalists perpetuated inaccurate information about suicides and bullying.

"When journalists ... imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support," she wrote. "In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide."


The Canadian Press

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