A recent article published on February 4, 2020, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, entitled “Cybervictimization in adolescence and its association with subsequent suicidal ideation/attempt beyond face-to-face victimization: a longitudinal population-based study”, seeks to demonstrate the link between cybervictimization and suicidal ideation in Quebec youth. The results, while unsettling, are very interesting and will certainly play a role in advancing future research into solutions and prevention methods.
Dr. Marie-Claude Geoffroy — Ph.D., Researcher, Professor and Psychologist — is interested in suicide and related mental health problems associated with all stages of life and in suicide prevention in the general population, with a focus on understanding and preventing suicide.
Here is a Q&A with Dr. Geoffroy, who answers our questions about the link between cybervictimization and suicidal ideation in Quebec youth:
What is cybervictimization?
Cybervictimization is a form of peer victimization that occurs through the use of technological means. An adolescent targeted by insulting comments or rumours on social media is a common example.
How many young Quebecers are cybervictimized during adolescence?
Approximately one adolescent in ten has been cybervictimized at least once during the last school year. There are certain differences based on age and sex, and it has been noted, for example, that girls are more often the target of cybervictimization than boys, and that most occurrences happen around 14-15 years of age.
Several studies have brought to light an association between cybervictimization and a higher risk of suicide in adolescents. Talk to us about your research and how it differs from other studies.
What were the objectives of your research?
Firstly, we wanted to know if adolescents targeted by cybervictimization in Quebec were more likely to think about suicide during that same year. Several studies had already revealed the connection, but not in a Quebec-based sample.
Secondly, we wanted to see if this association persisted over time. In other words, we sought to better understand the long-term effects of cybervictimization on suicidal ideation and the persistence of these thoughts over time.
How did you measure cybervictimization in Quebec adolescents?
Our study was conducted using data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. It is a large sample of children born in the province of Quebec between 1997-1998, and who were followed up until the age of 17 years.
We asked adolescents aged 12, 13, 15 and 17 years to fill out a questionnaire in which they were asked if they had been victimized on electronic platforms, by text or other, on the Internet or through social media.
What were the results of the research?
We were able to confirm that adolescents in Quebec were 2 to 4 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts if they had been cybervictimized during the same year.
Moreover, adolescents who were cybervictimized only or exposed to both cyber- and face-to-face victimization were more at risk for suicidal thoughts compared to adolescents that were victimized face- to-face only.
Our analyses also reveal that pre-existing differences between victimized and non-victimized adolescents, in terms of mental health and family context, do not explain our research results.
It is important to mention however, that this association does not persist over time. In other words, adolescents who experienced cybervictimization did not present a higher risk for suicidal ideation over time, while it was the case for traditional victimization. In fact, traditional victimization is associated with a risk factor that is twice as high with regards to suicidal ideation. Incidentally, that risk was observed up to 2 years later.
Is cybervictimization a cause of suicide among adolescents?
Even if we were to show that cybervictimization is associated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempt, it does not necessarily cause these problems. Actually, not all adolescents who have been cybervictimized will have suicidal thoughts. Adolescents are suicidal for various reasons. While cybervictimization may be one of the reasons, it is probably related to other reasons.
What advice do you have for parents whose child is being cybervictimized and are worried as a result?
Most of the time, cybervictimization is perpetrated by peers at school. If this is the case, we advise parents to talk to school officials.
What can we do if we are worried about suicide risk?
As a psychologist, I know that adolescence can be stressful time for many parents and adolescents. I am well aware of the fact that this study may raise questions and concerns among parents. There is good reason to ask yourself if your adolescent is thinking about suicide and what to do if he or she is.
Research shows that adolescents who are thinking about suicide will not necessarily confide in a parent. My advice is simple. If you are worried, do not hesitate to ask the question. Asking about suicide will not put suicidal thoughts in your adolescent’s head; on the contrary, it may actually save lives.
Assessing suicidal risk is complex, and this is why I recommend that parents avoid trying to assess the severity of suicidal thoughts on their own. It is important to remember that there are professionals who are trained and specialized in dealing with these issues, and there are also helplines – for example, option 2 when you call 811 and 1866-J’Appelle.
What measures can be taken to stop cybervictimization?
We are seeing an increase in the number of studies related to the effects of cybervictimization. However, too few studies are devoted to finding possible solutions and prevention. Currently, we know that interventions would be effective at reducing cybervictimization, both with the bullies and the victims.
However, we need to refine and determine which interventional strategy is the best.
The study was conducted under the supervision of Dr. Marie-Claude Geoffroy, McGill Group for Suicide Studies, Department of Psychiatry, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada; Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada.
In collaboration with:
- Lea C. Perret, McGill Group for Suicide Studies, Department of Psychiatry, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada;
- Massimiliano Orri, McGill Group for Suicide Studies, Department of Psychiatry, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada; Bordeaux Population Health Research Center, INSERM U1219, University of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France ;
- Michel Boivin, School of Psychology, Université Laval, Québec;
- Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, School of Criminology, Research Centre of the Montreal Mental Health University Institute, Université de Montréal, Montreal, QC;
- Anne-Sophie Denault, Faculty of Education, Department of Fundamentals and Practices in Education, Laval University, Quebec;
- Sylvana M. Côté, Bordeaux Population Health Research Center, INSERM U1219, University of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France; Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Université de Montréal, Montreal, QC, Canada;
- Richard E. Tremblay, School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland; Department of Pediatrics, Université de Montréal, Montreal, QC;
- Johanne Renaud, McGill Group for Suicide Studies, Department of Psychiatry, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada; Manulife Centre for Breakthroughs in Teen Depression and Suicide Prevention, Montreal, QC;
- Gustavo Turecki, McGill Group for Suicide Studies, Department of Psychiatry, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada.
—Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal