N.J. teen's suicide highlights dangers of social media bullying

The 14-year-old took her own life after video of her being attacked in a school hallway was shared online.

Adriana Kuch and an image of TikTok.
Adriana Kuch and an image of TikTok. (Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Family Handout, Getty Images)

Fourteen-year-old Adriana Kuch of Bayville, N.J., was found dead at home on Feb. 3, days after she was attacked in the hallway of her high school. The attack was recorded and later uploaded to TikTok, prompting a slew of nasty comments toward the teenager.

Four students have been charged with assault or harassment in the assault, according to prosecutors. The superintendent of the school district has since resigned.

Kuch’s family believes that the cyberbullying from the incident drove her to take her own life. Other students at Central Regional High School in Berkeley Township and members of the community blame school leadership for allowing a culture of bullying to persist in the district. Another 14-year-old, in a lawsuit against the district, alleges that she was assaulted by a group of teens in October and that the school took no action.

Both incidents were recorded and uploaded online, allowing still more teens to pile on, exacerbating an already humiliating situation. The two episodes, months apart, highlight the negative effects of cyberbullying on an age group that is already vulnerable.

“The district needs to demonstrate they have policies and programming 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.

A shadow of a hand over a computer keyboard. (Getty Images/Science Photo Library)
Teenagers today often feel under pressure from their social life online. (Getty Images/Science Photo Library)

Hinduja cited student and staff workshops, bystander intervention training and anonymous reporting systems as examples of ways to deescalate such incidents. “It doesn't mean that they will be able to forestall every incident, but they can at least show due diligence,” he said.

“There's a lot of positive aspects to social media. That all being said, of course, there's a lot of risk as well,” Stephanie Fredrick, a lead investigator and associate director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, told Yahoo News. “There's definitely a sort of pro-bullying attitude [at that high school], and certainly, more needs to be done.”

The data shows that this incident isn’t isolated to just one school but is part of a widespread pattern of teenage cyberbullying.

Nearly half of U.S. teens, or 46%, have been bullied or harassed online at some point, according to a 2022 report by Pew Research. The findings, which surveyed teens from 13 to 17, highlighted bullying behaviors like offensive name calling, spreading of false rumors and sharing explicit images. The data also found that older teens are more likely to become victims of online harassment.

While cyberbullying has existed since the early days of online communities and text messaging, the emergence of new social media platforms has fueled new incidents, year after year. And as schoolwork moved home in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, so too did virtual harassment, which experts argue could have more damaging effects than traditional bullying.

"It can be argued that cyberbullying is a more threatening form of aggression than traditional bullying, as cyberbullies can remain anonymous, causing bullying to occur around the clock,” Monica Barreto, a clinical child psychologist at the Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, told Forbes. "Although cyberbullying and traditional bullying share the common feature of being behaviors that communicate disrespect and domination, the expression of dominance in cyberbullying is emotional and psychological, without limits."

A teenager in the dark, lit by the screen of her smartphone.
A teenager pores over a smartphone in the dark. (Getty Images)

While the link between cyberbullying and suicide remains complex, several studies show a relationship between the two. A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year found that young people who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts as those who did not.

In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death among youths age 10-14 and young adults age 25-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gary Giumetti, a professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University, says cyberbullying can be especially damaging because it can be consumed repeatedly, on loop, and amplified for 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’ll go away,” Giumetti, who has more than a decade of research experience on issues of aggression and bullying, told his school's magazine. “But it’s a message you can reread and easily return to at any moment. The message can be forwarded, you can respond, and now you’re in a pattern of repetition and revictimization as you relive the experience.”

Teens' time spent on social media hasn’t slowed down, and neither have instances of online harassment. A study from the University of Georgia suggests that increased social media usage directly correlates with cyberbullying, because young people are searching for the immediate rush, or dopamine hit, that comes from digital engagement.

“It’s feeding into that addictive behavior, and they may be using cyberbullying as a way to get likes, shares, comments and retweets,” Amanda Giordano, principal investigator of the study and associate professor in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education, told UGA Today. “That’s the common thread you see in behavioral addictions — people start relying on a rewarding behavior as a way to make them feel better when they’re experiencing negative emotions.”

A youth in a hoodie at a desktop computer.
Young hackers' time online can become an addiction. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of Stomp Out Bullying, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing and preventing all forms of bullying, says social media can often be especially dangerous for teenagers, because those doing the bullying don’t think about the impact of their actions, and the actions seldom involve immediate consequences.

Thanks to digital anonymity, the UGA study found, online harassers often adopt a more aggressive persona than they would in a face-to-face interaction.

“The perpetrator doesn’t get a chance to see how damaging their bullying is and to learn from their mistakes and do something different,” Giordano said. “It’s a scary situation, because they don’t have the natural consequences they do with offline bullying.”

Several incidents over the last few years illustrate the tragic trend.

Late last year, a Florida teen died by 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 fatally shot himself after two classmates shared screenshots of explicit text conversations he had had with another young man, outing him as bisexual.

Snapchat logo displayed on a cellphone screen, with the silhouette of someone holding a cellphone.
The Snapchat logo displayed on a phone screen. (Photo Illustration: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Experts caution against concluding that social media only has dangers for young people. Fredrick noted that her research shows that teens at both ends of the spectrum of social media use may suffer. Those not active on social media at all — and those consistently on it all the time — “tend to have worse outcomes, like depression and anxiety,” she said.

“I don't think it's realistic, nor do I think it's a good thing, to just be telling our kids not to go on social media,” Fredrick said.

She argued that parents should warn their children about social media dangers, in the way that they remind them to look both ways before they cross the street or not to talk to strangers. “With those kinds of safety conversations, we should be including how to be safe in online spaces,” she said.

“We just need to continue to educate, equip and empower our kids to safeguard themselves in any environment where threats can arise,” Hinduja said. “It takes a great deal of time and effort, and you may never see obvious fruit from your labors, because it's hard to measure the problems that proper parenting can prevent. But it's worth it.”


Cover thumbnail photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images