Over the last few years, considerable attention has been given to deliberate, non-suicidal self-injury among adolescents since it is considered a gateway to suicide. Focus has also increased on the detrimental impact of cyber-bullying on youngsters’ emotional health and well-being. However, limited research exists regarding “digital self-harm,” also known as “self-trolling” or “self-cyberbullying.” Digital self-harm is anonymous posting, sending or sharing of hurtful content by adolescents about themselves. Hannah Smith’s suicide in August 2013 publicized the issue for the first time.
Smith (14) from Leicestershire, England was found hanging in her bedroom by her older sister. Her family blamed the suicide primarily on cyberbullying and online abuse. In a shocking twist to the tragedy, an inquest pointed to strong evidence that Smith had posted “vile” online messages about herself in the months preceding her death.
6% children involved in digital self-harm
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC) and Florida Atlantic University (FAU) surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,593 American middle and high school students aged 12 to 17 years to examine the extent of digital self-harm. The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in September 2017, showed that 6 percent students had posted anonymous, nasty online content about themselves. Boys (7.1 percent) had a significantly higher level of participation than girls (5.3 percent).
Digital self-harm is an emerging problem in the ever-increasing sphere of online aggression and abuse directed toward children and adolescents. It is important to protect children from harm, whether self-inflicted or perpetrated by others. As the global community observes Universal Children’s Day on November 20, it is a time for parents, educators and community members to reinforce issues of children’s safety and protect them from violence and abuse.
Different motives for boys and girls
The researchers included an open-ended question asking respondents to explain why they had engaged in such a behavior. Based on the responses, the researchers identified certain themes like self-hate, attention-seeking, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation as the core reasons. Some adolescents posted comments “to be funny” or to elicit responses from others. Boys engaged in such behavior as a joke or to seek attention, while girls described depression or psychological pain as their motivators. The researchers expressed concern that this behavior among girls could lead to attempted or completed suicide.
Around 7 percent teens, who participated in the research, identified as non-heterosexual. They had a three-time higher likelihood of self-cyberbullying. Moreover, there was a nearly 12-time higher likelihood of cyberbullying victims to have bullied themselves online, compared to those who were not victims. The prevalence of digital self-harm was also significantly higher among adolescents who had used drugs or taken part in deviant activities, had depressive symptoms, or had been previously involved in offline self-harm.
Sameer Hinduja, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at FAU, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and co-author of the study, said that previous research had shown that depression and self-harm were associated with an elevated risk of suicide. According to him, it was important to “closely look at the possibility that digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts,” just like physical self-harm and depression.
Digital self-harm may indicate need for social and clinical support
While digital self-harm as a behavioral problem among adolescents has garnered public attention fairly recently, hospital admissions for suicidal thoughts or self-harm among American children and adolescents aged between five and 17 years have doubled in the last decade, from 0.67 percent in 2008 to 1.79 percent in 2015. Nearly 34 percent adolescents reported being cyberbullied in their lifetimes, while nearly 12 percent admitted to cyberbullying others.
According to Hinduja, it is important to refrain from “demonizing” those who are bullies and deal with the uncomfortable fact that “in certain cases the aggressor and target may be one and the same”. Moreover, self-cyberbullying may actually indicate an underlying problem necessitating social and clinical support for affected adolescents
Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego facility provides individualized and comprehensive behavioral health treatment for teens to meet their specific needs. If you know a teen boy or girl who needs help for behavioral or mental health issues, contact our 24/7 helpline for further assistance or information about our programs. You may even chat online with our trained medical staff for immediate assistance.