Digital Self-harm: The Dark Underbelly of Adolescent Online Angst
- “U R ugly, fat, and stupid.”
- “The world is too good a place for U – ur pathetic.”
- “Why don’t you just kill ur self and make us all happier?”
These hurtful, horrible messages and many others like them are well-known to kids and teens who have been cyberbullied. Parents, teachers, counsellors, and school authorities, too, know the frustration of trying to wipe out such behaviour – which is on the rise – while dealing with the psychological fallout to the victim. But it has emerged in recent years that an even more sinister trend may also be increasing: the practice of sending such messages to oneself (Winterman, 2013).
What is digital self-harm?
Digital self- harm (also called self-trolling, self-cyberbullying, and cyber self-harm: Winterman, 2013) can be defined as “the anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself” (Patchin, 2017). It gained global attention in August of 2013 when fourteen-year-old Hannah Smith from England hanged herself, having been reportedly harassed online for months prior to her death. Her bereaved father asked for an investigation of the cyberbullying that apparently drove her to suicide. The shocking finding of the investigators was that Hannah herself had posted the cruel messages on social media (Kheriaty, 2018).
Three years prior, in 2010, Danah Boyd, the principal researcher at Microsoft, coined the term “digital self-harm”. While she acknowledged that the majority of hurtful anonymous messages online were probably not self-generated, she declared that “the fact that it exists at all should be a warning to us all” (Boyd, in The Cybersmile Foundation, n.d.). So how common was this newly-noticed phenomenon; was this just a one-off, unusual case?
In 2011, Dr. Elizabeth Englander, working from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre (MARC), studied cyber self-harm among a sample of 617 university students and found that 9% had digitally self-harmed anonymously while they were in high school: 13% of boys and 8% of girls (Patchin, 2017; Winterman, 2013). Colleagues Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin Patchin, recognising that no research had been done on middle- and high-school students, organised a national sample of 5539 12 – 17-year-olds and asked about many aspects of their lives, including digital self-harm. Similarly to Englander’s study, they found that 6% had digitally self-harmed, with boys doing it more than girls. Of those who responded affirmatively to the statement, “I have anonymously cyberbullied myself”, 37% had done it a few times, and 18% said they had done it “many times” (Patchin, 2017; Kheriaty, 2018).
Who does it? The risk factors
The Patchin & Hinduja study linked the following risk factors to engaging in digital self-harm:
- Sexual orientation (those who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were three times more likely to report the behaviour);
- Previous experience with school bullying (four to five times more likely to report the behaviour);
- Previous experience with cyber bullying (seven to twelve times more likely);
- Drug use;
- Deviant behaviour (7% in the survey who had digitally self-harmed had also engaged in physical self-harm, such as cutting behaviours);
- Depressive symptoms (Kheriaty, 2018; Hurley, 2018; Patchin, 2017).
Why do they do it?
Probably the most pressing question for the concerned folk observing the phenomenon of self-trolling is why they do it. Why would anyone, especially a vulnerable teen with shaky self-esteem, set up “ghost” accounts and secretly direct malicious, hurtful comments at themselves? Years before the studies were done, Boyd suggested three main motivations, seemingly borne out later by the studies:
- A cry for help
- To look cool
- To trigger compliments (The Cybersmile Foundation, n.d.)
Let’s look at each of those.
A cry for help
As we noted, those who are already feeling lonely or misunderstood, or who are showing other symptoms of depression, are more prone to self-troll. Girls, particularly, tended to engage digital self-harm because they were depressed (Martocci, 2017). Such teens responded to the survey with comments such as “Because I already felt bad and just wanted myself to feel worse”. Similarly, some claimed that they wanted attention (“Because I feel sad and needed attention from others”). These teens may be more at risk of suicide, such as Hannah Smith was.
To look cool
Boys sometimes said that they self-bullied online as a joke, to be funny, making comments like: “I do not like hurting others, but it’s easy to make fun of myself. I was bored and did it to maybe make others laugh as a joke” (Kheriaty, 2018). Boyd has suggested that teens may try to influence their social status as someone who is popular enough to gain negative comments from jealous “haters”. In other words, being criticised in some schools is a sign of popularity. By posting and responding to negative anonymous questions, it is possible to look important by appearing to be “cool” enough to have nasty things said about you. In this situation, cyberbullying is considered a marker of social status, so in a strange way, digital self-harm can constitute a form of self-aggrandisement (The Cybersmile Foundation, n.d.; Kheriaty, 2018; Patchin, 2017).
Those who had low-self-esteem or worries about themselves might insult themselves anonymously in order to “fish” for compliments, provoking their friends into saying nice things in response to the negative commentary. Dr Emma Short, Co-Director of the Centre for Cyberstalking Research, says that research shows that, if someone posts a nasty comment online, 30% of people will join in with the bullying, but about 60% of people will attack the troll, defending the person the nasty comment is about. It is that defence that a lot of adolescents could be seeking (The Cybersmile Foundation, n.d.). In this camp were those who tried to gain the attention of adults and peers who would worry about them and “stick up” for them (Patchin, 2017; Winterman, 2013)). There were also those whose self-obsession was enhanced by online gossip. One person self-trolled “to see how people I know would react so I would know if they are talking about me behind my back”, with another doing it in order to “see how others saw me” (Kheriaty, 2018). Loosely associated with this category were those who digitally self-harmed for narcissistic attention-seeking: “so people could see that people bully me too and that I could be mean to other people because ‘people’ were mean to me” (Kheriaty, 2018).
Spotting digital self-harm
Given the seriousness of the issue, the fact that it appears to be on the rise (anecdotally), and the fact that it is anonymous, how do we identify those who are harming themselves in this way? The answers aren’t easy. Boyd notes that most adults want to blame the problem on technology, rather than recognising that young people are merely using technology to act out the social and emotional issues they already confront. Technology, says Boyd, is just a magnifier: making the good, the bad, and the ugly bigger and more visible (Winterman, 2013). Except that it’s not: visible, that is.
Part of the problem for those researching digital self-harm is that the behaviour is highly secretive because of the extreme sense of shame involved. Those who do it fear being found out; the humiliation of being exposed as sending abusive messages to oneself online is massive. Psychologist Dr Richard Graham, of London’s Tavistock and Portman National Health Service Foundation Trust, notes that a major driver for adolescents is to try to establish themselves as appearing mature and adult. Thus, to be exposed engaging in the childish actions of self-bullying is a constant fear, heightening the secrecy (Winterman, 2013). So what can parents and other concerned adults do?
Parents’ role in preventing digital self-harm
What can you as a mental health helper advise parents to do if they suspect that their teenager is digitally self-harming? For a start, you can request that they take a deep breath and not engage the knee-jerk reaction of removing all technology! The other point to make to such a parent is that we need to focus on the reasons behind the behaviour, which were undoubtedly generated over a long period of time; thus, healing the need to engage in the behaviour may take some time, even if the teen can be removed from the technology that enables the behaviour. Here, then, are some things parents can initiate (mostly not short-term).
- Create/grow an environment of open and honest communication between you and the adolescent. Self-trolling is a difficult topic; the only way parents can find out why their 15-year-old bullied himself online is if they can establish and maintain a relationship in which the boy feels safe to go to them and talk about why he did what he did (e.g., for a joke, to get compliments or positive attention, or because he is seriously struggling with self-worth). Achieving this is neither a one-off conversation nor a short-term solution; trust takes time to build.
- Walk a fine line with social media. It’s tricky business to monitor adolescent usage of social media, where the bullying mainly happens. Given teenagers’ appropriate drive for individuation resulting in higher needs for independence, the parent cannot hover like a hawk waiting to swoop without rousing resentment in the child. And it’s not effective; teens are perfectly capable of setting up separate accounts from which they can then digitally self-harm – without the parent’s watchful eyes on them. That said, teens are certainly capable of making mistakes, and it does make sense to have ongoing conversations about what is happening online relative to the child. Instead of investigating their offspring’s phone each night, however, parents can enquire about any negatively charged comments, offering their child a chance to share their feelings about them. In the context of regular, frequent conversations about the “serve and limit” of social media, parents can help the teen get a perspective on cyberbullying and what to do if it occurs, observing their child for any signs of self-harm online.
- Avoid judgment. Again, you can advise parents to take that deep breath, stay calm, and try to craft some open-ended questions, such as: “How did you feel as you were posting these messages?” “How did others respond?” “What was your reaction to others’ responses?” “How did you feel after it all happened?” Such questions can help a teen work through an incident of cyber self-harm without criticism or judgment.
- Help the teen build a support system. The paradox of modern connectivity confronts young people as they realise that their myriad online contacts are not reliable sources of support, and they feel isolated from face-to-face connection. The adolescent can be helped to name trusted friends, teachers, coaches, school counsellors, and others who can help support the teen and reduce the sense of isolation and despair. Again, the “list” can be put together quickly, but building the sense of trust and willingness to reach out may be a more medium-term piece of work.
- Get professional help. If you, the mental health helper hearing from the parent, are not an appropriate professional (perhaps because you do not work with young people, or for other reasons), then your job is to find the right person for the young person, and possibly the parents, to talk to. If not depression, the teen who engages in digital self-harm is struggling with something, and the teen will be benefited by learning adaptive coping skills for the future, rather than resorting to maladaptive online self-harm. One resource available is Michelle Mitchell’s recently-published book: Self-harm: Why teens do it and what parents can do to help, available from www.michellemitchell.org/selfharmlp
The bottom line for us as mental health professionals is that, if a young person experiences cyberbullying, there is a problem that needs to be resolved. As Patchin (2017) puts it, this is true even if – or, rather, especially if – the sender and receiver are the same person.
- Hurley, K. (2018). Digital self-harm: Why are teens cyber bullying themselves? Psycom. Retrieved on 5 March, 2019, from: Website.
- Kheriaty, A. (2018). Cyber self-harm. First Things. Retrieved on 5 March, 2019, from: Website.
- Martocci, L. (2017). Self-cyberbullying. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 5 March, 2019, from: Website.
- Patchin, J. (2017). Digital self-harm: The hidden side of adolescent online aggression. Cyberbullying Research Centre. Retrieved on 5 March, 2019, from: Website.
- The Cybersmile Foundation. (n.d.). Why would someone cyber self-harm? The Cybersmile Foundation. Retrieved on March, 2019, from: Website.
- Winterman, D. (2013). Cyber self-harm: Why do people troll themselves online? BBC News Magazine. Retrieved on 5 March, 2019, from: Website.