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?
The studiesIn 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 factorsThe Patchin & Hinduja study linked the following risk factors to engaging in digital self-harm:
A cry for helpAs 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 coolBoys 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).
Triggering complimentsThose 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-harmGiven 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-harmWhat 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).