When Self-Harm Turns Digital

“You’re so lucky to be a teenager! Best years of your life right here!”

Those are the words that, on several occasions, produced in me an overwhelming sense of dread the moment they left a well-meaning adult’s lips.

This is as good as it gets? This?

Don’t get me wrong; I had it pretty good. But, as every middle and high schooler knows, insecurities, worry about the future and a misunderstanding of oneself are ever-present in the life of a teen, and I grew up before the digital age.

Today’s teens face the same struggles we did and then some. More than some, in fact. If we’re not careful, we can tend to glorify the good ol’ days and completely dismiss the bigger opportunity we have as adults who interact with teens: the chance to offer hope for the future.

We must face the hard facts of the mental health issues unique to today’s teens so we can offer help and support along the way. That brings us to the issue of digital self-harm.

What is Digital Self-Harm?

If this term is new to you, you’re not alone. Researchers are just digging into this trend among our nation’s teens.

The basics: digital self-harm occurs when a person makes hurtful comments online about themselves.

We’re all familiar with cyberbullying and its devastating outcomes. But cyberbullying yourself? While this may sound strange to those of us in older generations, a recent study of more than 5,000 students found that six percent of them have participated in digital self-harm.1

In a report about digital self-harm, NPR reported the story of a teenage girl who created fake accounts on Instagram and then commented on her own posts with harsh words like, “I think you’re creepy and gay.”2

Of course, social media isn’t the only medium for digital self-harm. It can occur on any platform where teens communicate with peers — a near limitless list including text messaging, email, apps, video games and web forums.3

Digital Self-Harm Sounds Mild Compared to Physical Self-Harm. Why Should This Behavior Alarm Us?

Historically, self-harm involves actual destruction of one’s body. Digital self-harm, on the surface, might appear to be nothing more than a grab for attention.

On the contrary, digital self-harm hints at where the big picture of mental health issues may be headed. After all, teens and adults alike struggle to draw the line between real life and a life lived on the Internet. Reality and fantasy have blurred and it’s easy to assume that what happens in one realm could easily transfer to another.

Research already tells us that the mental health of teens is negatively affected by smartphones.4

And recent statistics show that physical self-harm of teenage girls is up, as are the rates of teen suicide, with smartphones to blame.2, 4

So, when experts point out a similarly-timed trend of digital self-harm, we should consider this behavior a warning sign that absolutely needs addressing.

In fact, researchers felt compelled to study digital self-harm after two girls committed suicide after being cyberbullied, only for investigators to discover the cyberbullying was self-inflicted.5

What’s Motivating Teens to Digitally Self-Harm?

We still have a lot to learn about why teens choose to bully themselves online. Still, to get a feel for what’s going on, researchers were able to draw a few conclusions from participant responses. Reasons given include:

  • To make bad feelings worse
  • As a test to discover true friends
  • A way to show resilience under pressure
  • To get parents to notice them 2
  • As a more concrete form of negative self-talk
  • So someone would contradict mean comments and build them up 4
  • To justify bullying others 3

The logic is troubling and, for many of us, may be difficult to understand. Regardless, we should view digital self-harm as a call for help. And then, of course, we should answer the call.

How Can We Help Fight Against Digital Self-Harm?

You can help the teens in your life avoid (or stop engaging in) digital self harm:

Be aware. If your child comes to you complaining of being cyber-bullied, keep in mind that he or she may (emphasis on may) be creating the cruelty themselves.

Know that certain circumstances increase the likelihood of digital self-harm. Researchers found a connection between digital self-harm and the following:

  • Teens who are not heterosexual
  • Teens who have been bullied in school or online
  • Teens who use drugs or drink alcohol
  • Teens who exhibit symptoms of depression 1

Facilitate face-to-face conversation. Sameer Hinduja, PhD, who co-authored this study, encourages parents to help kids feel comfortable talking with you about anything at anytime. He says, “Validating a teen’s experience can encourage them to confide in adults about their distressing experiences — offline or online.”2

Offer encouragement for the future. Look for ways to show teenagers the beauty of life after middle school and high school. Emphasize the joy of adulthood: getting to choose your friends, career, partner and even how you’ll spend your free time as well as the priority shift that comes with getting older.

By Stephanie Thomas

1 Patchin, Justin W. & Hinduja, Sameer. Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents. Cyberbullying Research Center, October 18, 2017.
2 Fraga, Juli. When Teens Cyberbully Themselves. NPR, April 21, 2018.
3 Gastaldo, Evann. Alarming Trend Among Teens: ‘Digital Self-Harm’. Newser, November 9, 2017.
4 Weller, Chris. A surprising number of teenagers are engaging in ‘digital self-harm,’ the practice of being mean to yourself online. Business Insider, October 18, 2017.
5 Patchin, Justin W. Digital Self-Harm: The Hidden Side of Adolescent Online Aggression. Cyberbullying Research Center, October 3, 2107.

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