Fourteen-year-old Adriana Kuch of Bayville, NJ, was found dead at home on February 3, days after being attacked in the hallway of her high school. The attack was recorded and later uploaded to TikTok, prompting a slew of nasty comments about the teen.
Four students have been charged with assault or harassment in the attack, according to prosecutors. The superintendent of the school district has since resigned.
Kuch’s family believes the cyberbullying incident prompted her to commit suicide. Other students at Berkeley Township’s Central Regional High School and members of the community blame the school board for perpetuating a culture of bullying in the district. Another 14-year-old, in a lawsuit against the district, claims she was attacked by a group of teenagers in October and the school took no action.
Both incidents were recorded and uploaded online, allowing even more teens to pile up, compounding an already humiliating situation. The two episodes, months apart, highlight the negative effects of cyberbullying on an already vulnerable age group.
“The district needs to demonstrate that they have policies and programs in place to prevent these incidents from happening,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, told Yahoo News.
Hinduja cited workshops for students and staff, bystander intervention training and anonymous reporting systems as examples of ways to de-escalate such incidents. “It doesn’t mean they can prevent every incident, but at least they can show due diligence,” he said.
“There are many positive aspects to social media. That being said, of course there are also a lot of risks,” Stephanie Fredrick, a principal investigator and deputy director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, told Yahoo News. “There is definitely a kind of pro-bullying attitude [at that high school]and certainly more needs to be done.”
The data shows that this incident is not at one school, but part of a widespread pattern of teen cyberbullying.
According to a 2022 report from Pew Research, nearly half of American teens, or 46%, have been bullied or harassed online at some point. The findings, which surveyed teens aged 13 to 17, highlighted bullying behaviors such as offensive name calling, spreading false rumors and sharing explicit images. The data also showed that older teens are more likely to be victims of online harassment.
While cyberbullying has been around since the early days of online communities and text messaging, the emergence of new social media platforms has led to new incidents year after year. And as schoolwork moved home in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, so did virtual harassment, which experts say can have more damaging consequences than traditional bullying.
“It could be argued that cyberbullying is a more threatening form of aggression than traditional bullying, as cyberbullying can remain anonymous, making bullying a 24-hour occurrence,” said Monica Barreto, a clinical child psychologist at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, told Forbes. “While cyberbullying and traditional bullying share the common trait of behaviors that express disrespect and domination, the expression of dominance in cyberbullying is emotional and psychological, without boundaries.”
While the link between cyberbullying and suicide remains complex, several studies show a link between the two. A report published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that young people who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts than those who did not.
In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-14 and young adults ages 25-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gary Giumetti, a psychology professor at Quinnipiac University, says cyberbullying can be especially harmful because it can be amplified repeatedly, continuously, and over days or weeks.
“People will argue that cyberbullying isn’t as harmful as a face-to-face attack because you can turn off your phone and it will go away,” Giumetti, who has more than a decade of research experience on aggression and bullying, told magazine from his school. “But it is a message that you can reread at any time and easily return to. The message can be forwarded, you can respond, and now you’re in a pattern of repetition and victimization again as you relive the experience.
The time teens spend on social media has not decreased, nor have there been any instances of online harassment. A study from the University of Georgia suggests that increased social media use is directly linked to cyberbullying, as young people look for the instant kick, or dopamine hit, that comes from digital engagement.
“It’s fueling that addictive behavior and they might be using cyberbullying as a way to get likes, shares, comments and retweets,” Amanda Giordano, the study’s lead researcher and an associate professor in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education, told me. UG today. “That’s the common thread you see in behavioral addictions — people are starting to rely on rewarding behaviors as a way to make them feel better when they’re experiencing negative emotions.”
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of Stomp Out Bullying, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing and preventing all forms of bullying, says social media can often be particularly dangerous for teens because those who bully don’t think about the impact of their actions. and the actions rarely have immediate consequences.
Thanks to digital anonymity, the UGA study found, online bullies often take on a more aggressive personality than in a face-to-face interaction.
“The perpetrator doesn’t get a chance to see how harmful his bullying is and to learn from his mistakes and do something different,” Giordano said. “It’s a scary situation, because they don’t have the natural consequences that they have with offline bullying.”
Several incidents in recent years illustrate the tragic trend.
Late last year, a Florida teenager committed suicide after a compromising photo of her was shared on social media. In the summer of 2020, a 16-year-old from Oregon took his own life after being bullied with anonymous messages on the social media app Snapchat. A year earlier, another 16-year-old from Tennessee shot himself after two classmates shared screenshots of explicit text conversations he had with another young man, calling him bisexual.
Experts warn against concluding that social media only poses dangers to young people. Fredrick noted that her research shows that teens at both ends of the spectrum of social media use can suffer. Those who aren’t active on social media at all — and those who are on it constantly — “often have worse outcomes, such as depression and anxiety,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s realistic, nor do I think it’s a good thing, to just tell our kids not to go on social media,” Fredrick said.
She argued that parents should warn their children about the dangers of social media, reminding them to look both ways before crossing the street or not to talk to strangers. “With that kind of safety conversation, we also need to discuss how to be safe in online spaces,” she said.
“We just have to keep educating, equipping and empowering our children to protect themselves in any environment where threats may arise,” Hinduja said. “It takes a lot of time and effort, and you may never see the clear fruits of your labor because it’s hard to measure the problems good parenting can prevent. But it is worth it.”
Cover thumbnail: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images