What is Digital Self-Harm?

Digital self-harm was relatively unknown until after the suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith of Leicestershire, England in 2013. After the young girl’s death, it was learned that she had been cyberbullying herself with messages posted on Ask.fm.

However, the phenomenon of digital self-harm is not new. Since 2010, teens have been self-posting negative comments or memes anonymously that have been identified by law enforcement, clinicians, and the few researchers who have explored the topic.

Digital self-harm is defined as the anonymous or pseudonymous posting of negative or harmful content directed at oneself on the internet or social media platforms. Such behavior causes emotional harm rather than physical harm, and often indicates the state of a child’s mental health, whether its objective is to seek attention, regulate emotions, or be used as a defense mechanism.

It generally happens something like this. In an online forum, an anonymous threatening message appears against a student. Someone spots it and reports it to a school official, the website, or the police. A short investigation yields a disturbing finding. The perpetrator who posted the threat is the same person as the target of the threat. The student is engaging in an act of digital self-harm … or cyberbullying oneself.

How Prevalent is Digital Self-Harm?

Unfortunately, digital self-harm has become relatively common among teenagers. A 2017 research study in the Journal of Adolescent Health documented the experiences of 5,500 students between the ages of 12 and 17. Included in the survey’s findings were that:

  • About thirty-five percent had practiced digital self-harm at least a few times
  • Thirteen percent said they had done so many times
  • Victims of actual cyberbullying were more likely to self-troll
  • Boys were more likely to self-troll than girls
  • Boys more often said that they self-trolled “as a joke or to get attention,” while girls more often said the behavior was “a way to cope with depression and psychological pain”
  • There was a strong correlation between digital self-harm and behavioral problems, physical self-harm, substance abuse, and symptoms of depression

A recent study, published in Deviant Behavior, measured data from a 2019 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey that polled 10,000 of the state’s middle school and high school students. The survey found that 10% of participants reported engaging in digital self-harm in the past 12 months, and 6% had in the past 30 days.

“Some people may look at a prevalence rate of 10% and feel as though this is a small percentage, but when you aggregate that up to a district, state, or national level, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of K-12 students are likely engaging in digital self-harm,” says lead study researcher Ryan Meldrum, Ph.D. who works in  FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs.

“There is a need to better acknowledge this behavior so that steps can start to be taken to address it or, preferably, find ways to prevent its occurrence in the first place.”

And Meldrum adds, “The prevalence of digital self-harm might be on the increase, especially when you consider the emotional toll that COVID has taken on everyone, including K-12 students and their isolation from friends, and how that might manifest in mental health issues and behavior like digital self-harm.”

So Why is it Such a Secret?

So if digital self-harm is such a problem, where are the red flags, and why don’t we hear anyone discussing it? “If you’re talking about implications for district administrators, it is a behavior that is so new and so novel, the vast majority of the public has still never even heard of it,” says Meldrum. “There are experts in the field on physical self-harm that don’t even know about digital self-harm.”

“If you were to query district administrators, teachers, principals, and parents, I think they would be quite shocked to hear something like 1 in 10 Florida students say that they’ve done this in the past year. I would venture to guess that not all of the senior administrators of the 67 counties we have in Florida are very aware of it.”

However, when we consider these statistics – 10% of a pool of 10,000 students surveyed in grades 6-12, including 6% who said they engaged in this behavior in the past 30 days – it should be clear that it is time for digital self-harm to be on the radar of district leaders because of the potentially tragic outcomes.

How Do We Explain Such Destructive Behavior?

Many characterize adolescence as a time of extreme insecurity and yearning to belong. As younger and younger children gain access to smartphones and spend more of their waking hours online, their identity and sense of self become further enmeshed in the trappings of social media, which often is dangerous to their psychological health.

“That’s where our kids are tangled up right now,” says Tom Kersting, Ph.D., psychotherapist, and author of Disconnected: How To Protect Your Kids From The Harmful Effects Of Device Dependency. “They believe that who they are is predicated on how many likes they have, how many followers they have. It’s distorting their self-esteem.”

Unfortunately, this distortion makes them more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and depression. In the process of navigating these feelings, digital self-harm offers a very appealing coping mechanism. By easily creating an alternate persona, these adolescents are poised to aim mean or hurtful comments back at themselves.

“With a young impressionable mind, it’s better to be noticed than to be irrelevant,” Kersting says. “Spewing out all these terrible things about yourself, that provides a platform for getting the external attention that they so desperately seek, but they’re getting it negatively because they don’t know any better.”

Concerning why these students engage in such destructive behavior, Meldrum has a few theories that other experts have put forth as well.

“I’m sure some of them are doing it because it is kind of a cry for help,” he says.

“They’re trying to get some type of validation or they’re experiencing depressive symptoms and anxiety. I’ve seen other examples where clinicians have had adolescent clients who said they wanted to beat the bullies to the punch and get negative information out there about themselves before bullies did it … so that they can then lessen the blow.”

He adds that the absence of quality parenting can be a factor as well. “Kids who have higher-quality relationships with their parents are less likely to engage in self-harm.”

Self-harmers may also feel the pull to toxic online communities that both validate and perpetuate negative behaviors. While initially connecting with others who share their experience may provide a sense of validation and support to self-harmers, eventually, it serves to normalize these destructive beliefs and behaviors and pull the participants down even further.

Take for example the Tumblr pages that are dedicated to anorexia or cutting, or the Reddit pages filled with self-deprecating rants and suicide jokes. These online forums are often filter bubbles that don’t provide any guidance for improving low self-esteem or altering distorted or damaging beliefs about oneself or the world at large.

It’s important to keep in mind that, irrespective of how manipulative or trivial the external reason may seem to be, i.e., boredom, attention-seeking, etc., this behavior stems from legitimate, overpowering negative feelings. These adolescents are yearning for attention albeit in a destructive way.

Bullying as a Predictor of Digital Harm

A recent study examined the connection between digital self-harm and the negative emotions caused by bullying. Researchers found a strong positive association between bullying victimization, negative emotions, and digital self-harm. Because adolescents are spending more of their time online, they may be less likely to seek solace in physical self-harm, instead, taking to the internet to alleviate the emotional pain of being bullied.

“There are strong links between kids being exposed to bullying and then saying they had engaged in digital self-harm,” Meldrum says. “There appear to be commonalities emerging when we look at self-harming behaviors, whether that be physical self-harm, non-suicidal self-injury, or digital self-harm – the deeply negative emotional and psychological effects [bullying] has on kids and their self-esteem and how they identify themselves.”

Though digital self-harm is often difficult to detect, administrators and faculty can help mitigate one of the key variables that leads to it. Since digital self-harm is often a consequence of bullying – as noted in Patchin and Hinduja’s 2017 study – enforcing policies to reduce cyberbullying and ensure that online spaces are well-monitored and safe is imperative.

What Can You Do About It?

1. Healthy Relationship with Parents

Another important study found that participants were less likely to report engaging in digital self-harm if they felt they had warm, communicative relationships with their parents. Maintaining open lines of communication by spending quality time with your child will promote the discussion of associated emotions and experiences of bullying that will likely reduce the risk of digital self-harm.

2. Parental Awareness

Aside from communication, parents and teachers must learn about digital self-harm and the red flags that indicate that it is occurring. Kersting suggests that parents be attuned to a loss in the child’s interest in activities they had previously been excited about, falling grades, an uptick of anxiety, or gradually increasing tension in the home. Any of these may indicate that your child is too connected to their phone.

3. Monitor Digital Activity

If you are serious about monitoring your child’s internet activity, the experts suggest that you download an app such as Net Nanny. Dr. Howard Pratt, DO, a children’s psychiatrist at Community Health of South Florida, Inc., reminds you that children will always be 10 steps ahead of parents when it comes to technology.

He adds: “When you hand your child anything that has access to social media, you’re really exposing them to the world. You have to be the gatekeeper.”

If you are very suspicious, you may need to go through your child’s phone. Pratt suggests that you do this with someone younger to help you to understand what’s going on. Younger individuals—regardless of whether they’re your other children, your child’s friends, or peers—can identify issues that you may not be fully aware of.

“There could be an important role for peers to play,” Meldrum says. “Teens are very tech-savvy, and they might be able to differentiate instances of actual bullying online from what might be self-cyberbullying.”

4. Professional Help

If you do come across something you are concerned about, or sense that your child is exhibiting symptoms of depression or self-harm, remember that there is help available. Seeking out a mental health professional could be the best move to ensure your child’s mental health and future.