Research has revealed that the practice known as ‘digital self-harm’ is far more common than experts had previously thought, and could be a cry for help to draw attention to other bullying that’s gone unnoticed.
More and more teenagers are engaging in a new form of self-harm: bullying themselves online.
One of the most harrowing stories of this trend is that of Hannah Wright, a 14-year-old from the UK who committed suicide in 2014 after writing hateful messages about herself on social media.
Experts warn the key danger of the trend is that it is incredibly difficult to spot, and uncharted territory that parents have no experience with. However, there are some key things parents can look out for to protect and help their children.
A survey last year found that six percent of teens had written mean and defamatory things themselves online, a growing trend known as ‘digital self-harm’ (stock image)
A 2017 cyberbullying survey of more than 5,500 middle and high school students across the US found that had practiced digital self harm, which involves creating anonymous accounts on social media and posting derogatory comments about oneself.
The lead authors on the study, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, said they were stunned to learn the practice was so prevalent.
‘This finding was totally unexpected, even though I’ve been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years,’ said Hinduja, a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University.
‘Everyone – including us – is shocked that this is a thing. Now that we know it is happening, we need to get these kids help,’ added Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
Teens have been engaging in self-harm for decades, but the world of social media has opened up new avenues for aggression, according to Titania Jordan, Chief Parenting Officer for Bark, an app that puts parental controls on social media.
‘Seeking attention is not something new for teens, but digital self-harm is the new way it manifests itself,’ Jordan told Daily Mail Online.
This generation of middle and high schoolers grew up is more digitally connected than any group to come before them.
Studies have shown that the majority of social interactions among teens occur in this digital world, one that is often hidden from their parents.
Sheryl Gonzalez-Ziegler, a child psychologist from Denver, said she’s seen the self-bullying behavior in a growing number of teens that she counsels, including one girl who is gay.
It’s a way to bring attention to the bullying that no one else sees. ‘She set up ghost accounts on Instagram and posted mean comments about herself, saying things like: “I think you’re creepy and gay” and “Don’t sit next to me again”,’ Ziegler told NPR.
‘She said these things because she feared being mocked by her peers.
‘She thought their teasing wouldn’t be so bad if she beat them to the punch.’
The survey published last fall found that the most commonly-cited reasons for cyberbullying oneself involved low self-esteem and a desire for attention from classmates and friends.
However, it may serve as an indicator of more serious mental health problems including depression and suicidality.
‘Digital self-harm is real and not something to be taken lightly,’ Jordan said.
‘While more research is needed as this is a relatively new phenomenon, we know that teens with existing mental health or bullying issues are more likely to be involved in this activity.’
The research also revealed that teens who engaged in digital self-harm were 12 times more likely to have experienced cyberbullying from someone else.
Signs of self-bullying
While digital-self harm doesn’t leave physical scars, there are a few things parents should look out for, according to Bark executive Titiana Jordan.
- Decreased appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of interest in social activity
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Expressions of sadness, anxiety and agitation when receiving texts or notifications on devices
- Inability to detach from devices
- A drop in grades
‘Our theory is that the previous bullying or cyberbullying may be taking place in the dark corners of the school or online in places that no one else sees,’ Patchin said.
‘Sending hurtful messages to themselves in a more public way may be a way to make the other bullying more visible.
‘It’s a way to bring attention to the bullying that no one else sees. In other words, it’s a cry for help.’
Unlike traditional forms of self-harm such as cutting, digital self-harm is often invisible, making it more difficult for parents to detect.
Hinduja told Daily Mail Online that because there is not much research on the topic of self-bullying, very little is known about the warning signs.
‘I honestly don’t think that we can spot if a teen is cyberbullying themselves,’ he said.
There are, however, common signs associated with regular bullying and cyberbullying that parents can look out for, Jordan said.
These include decreased appetite, trouble sleeping, withdrawal from friends and family and drops in one’s grades.
Patchin added: ‘We need public discussions about the issue so we can help people better identify problems before they escalate. We need to build awareness.’