Sameer and I have been interested in digital self-harm for almost a decade now. We first became aware of it when we learned of the suicide of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from England who ended her own life after being mistreated online. It was ultimately determined that many of the hurtful comments directed to her were – in fact – posted by her. Without a doubt, this behavior was associated with larger issues she was struggling with at the time. As researchers interested in various forms of online abuse, we wanted to know more about the nature and extent of this problem across youthful populations – and continue to illuminate some interesting findings.
We formally define digital self-harm as the “anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.” We first collected data about digital self-harm in 2016. We found that about 6% of middle and high school students had participated in digital self-harm. Results of that research were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
In our latest project, the findings of which have just been published in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, we collaborated with Ryan Meldrum from Florida International University to explore more deeply the connection between digital self-harm and suicidality. We were specifically interested in whether youth who participated in digital self-harm were at a greater risk for also having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide.
Data for this study were collected in the spring of 2019 from a national sample of 4,972 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States. We asked two questions about digital self-harm: (1) “In my lifetime, I have anonymously posted something online about myself that was mean,” and (2) “In my lifetime, I have anonymously cyberbullied myself online.” We also asked two questions about suicide: (1) “In the past year, have you seriously thought about attempting suicide,” and (2) “In the past year have you attempted suicide.”
When asked about digital self-harm, 8.6% of the youth reported that they had anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean (which is a bit higher than what we found in our 2016 study). About the same number reported that they had anonymously cyberbullied themselves in 2019 (5.1%) and 2016 (5.3%). In 2016, males were significantly more likely to have participated in digital self-harm than females, but in 2019 we did not find a gender difference.
As expected, youth who reported that they had participated in digital self-harm were significantly more likely to also report that they had suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide. Specifically, adolescents who said they had posted something mean about themselves anonymously online were more than five times as likely to have thought seriously about suicide and more than nine times as likely to have attempted suicide. Similarly, those who said they had cyberbullied themselves anonymously were nearly seven times as likely to have thought seriously about suicide and more than fifteen times as likely to have attempted suicide.
Youth who reported that they had participated in digital self-harm were significantly more likely to also report that they had suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide.
Our research over the last several years has shown that digital self-harm continues to occur among middle and high school students, and that experience with these behaviors is associated with detrimental outcomes. While we are not able to say that digital self-harm causes suicidal thoughts and attempts, there is some evidence that they are occurring at about the same time. The only way to precisely determine if there is a causal relationship is to study the same youth at multiple points over time. This is particularly challenging when asking about sensitive questions like suicidality. Nevertheless, more research is necessary to further explore this largely hidden problem.
Parents should seek to cultivate the kind of relationship with their child(ren) that enables frank and open conversations about what is going on online (and off). Our research has shown that children engage in digital self-harm to get attention, to get a reaction, or because they are sad or depressed. No matter the reason for participating, they need help. Parents and other adults who care for youth need to be available to support them when mental health challenges arise.
Cover image: Steinar Engeland (@steinart) on Unsplash