Who could forget the horrible story of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Irish immigrant who committed suicide after relentless bullying by nine school mates.  But this wasn’t your old-fashioned schoolyard bullying. Phoebe apparently faced an onslaught of bullying via texts, Facebook messages, and in person at the school. Even after her death, the harassing girls left disparaging messages on a Facebook page created in her memory.

There is little mystery as to who those girls were; you met them in your own high school. They were the pretty girls who played sports, were in cheerleading, and used their good looks to date all the name-brand jocks. But having seen plenty of bullying in my own and my children’s high schools, I don’t recall such an extreme reaction as suicide. Teen agers are prone to suicidal ideation, but they rarely act on it. So what is it about cyber bullying that makes it so deadly?

In the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health NIH investigators found a high likelihood of depression in victims of cyber bullying, higher than among the perpetrators (no surprise there) and higher than in adolescents that have not experienced any harassment. But what was is a bit surprising was the finding that cyber bullying caused significantly higher rates of depression than good old fashioned bullying. So what could the explanation be?

Unfortunately, the study was not designed to answer this question. But until a study to investigate this question is conducted, let me share a couple of thoughts. The anonymity of electronic messages tends to give the harasser the license to exceed all boundaries. I recently read an innocuous on-line article on the effect of climate change on the migration of European birds. Hardly a stimulating subject, until I read the readers’ comments; they were astounding in their vehement venom and vitriol.

On the other side of the equation, unlike traditional bullying which usually involves a face-to-face confrontation, cyber victims may not see or identify their harasser; as such, cyber victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized or helpless at the time of the attack. And the feeling of helplessness is a prime cause of depression.

The sense of isolation is not limited to depressed adolescents or to adolescents in general. “Social” networks are rapidly displacing face-to-face socialization. One may have hundreds of virtual Tweeter “followers” and Facebook “friends”, but in reality have few or no real-life friends. We recently went out for breakfast at a decidedly Yuppie (how 20th century) café. At the next table sat an attractive young couple; the epitome of the “beautiful people”. Both in their 30’s, obviously financially successful, dressed in casual chic, both looking like the world is theirs for the taking – and both pitifully isolated. She was texting on two phones, barely lifting her eyes. He was taking a stream of calls on his cell phone.

Or take this; there is a course offered at Yale teaching, I am not making this up, Verbal communication! Students have lost their capacity to communicate with each other meaningfully, in full sentences, and without the isolating protection of electronic gizmos.

How can anybody form support systems in such an arid social milieu? It can drive one to despair. And to suicide.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. The situation seems to have improved for face-to-face bullying in the last several years because it has been studied; teachers and school administrators have learned techniques for addressing it, and things have come a long way from Lincoln Elementary School in Burlingame CA in the 1970s (my experience). The reality of those days was that there wasn’t a safe mechanism for students to report bullying, and teachers and administrators didn’t necessarily have the tools to identify it nor the education to understand how damaging it is. Today in my daughter’s school, there are educational signs posted throughout the building with information about bullying, and school personnel are charged with proactively seeking out instances of bullying and addressing it immediately and unequivocally (without any of that old-time “let the kids work it out” disengagement). That’s the blessing of today; the curse is that because of how we communicate now, bullies are able to hide so victims are even more isolated. How are parents, teachers and other adults involved in kids’ lives able to be proactive now? Proactive involvement is key with bullying because victims often feel too humiliated to report, but how to be proactive online? The problem is mind-boggling, and scary.

  2. After 23 years in juvenile court, I learned that teenagers often learn from the experiences of their peers, not just from being lectured by those in authority. Consequently, “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” was published in January, 2010. Endorsed by Dr. Phil on April 8, 2010 [“Bullied to Death” show] TCI presents real cases of teens in trouble over their online and cell phone activities. Civil & criminal sanctions have been imposed on teens over their emails, blogs, text and IM messages, Facebook entries and more. TCI is interactive and promotes education & awareness so that our youth will begin to “Think B4 U Click.” Thanks for looking at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” on http://www.freespirit.com [publisher] or on http://www.askthejudge.info [a free website for & about teens and the law].
    Regards, -Judge Tom.

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