Digital Self-Harm: The Growing Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

Digital Self-Harm: The Growing Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

Sameer and I first became aware of digital self-harm over a decade ago when we learned of the suicide of Hannah Smith. She was 14 years old when she ended her life after being mistreated online. The resulting investigation determined that the threats and hurtful comments directed toward her on the anonymous app were actually posted by herself.

This blindsided us. We had been studying teen cyberbullying for a dozen years at that point but had never even considered the possibility that youth would cyberbully themselves. As a result, we committed to learning as much as we could about the behavior: who was doing it and why.

Digital Self-Harm Research

We define digital self-harm as the “anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.” It often looks like threats or targeted messages of hate or abuse directed toward an individual by one or more anonymous or pseudonymous sources. Observers may be inclined to believe that what they are witnessing is abusive behavior by peers. In these instances, however, the perpetrator and target of the hurtful content are in fact one and the same.

When we ask youth about their experience with digital self-harm, we ask about two specific behaviors: (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.” As one might expect, responses to these questions are highly correlated. We have analyzed them separately over the years, though, because digital self-harm research is still so new, and we are still learning the best way to study the problem.

We first collected data about digital self-harm in 2016. We found that 4-6% of middle and high school students had participated in the behavior. Four percent had anonymously cyberbullied themselves while six percent had anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean. We learned that they were doing so because they had self-hate, were depressed, were seeking attention, or were simply looking for a reaction. Results from that first study were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

We collected additional data in 2019 and 2021. In a newly published paper that appears in the Journal of School Violence, we examine the trends in digital self-harm over time by looking at the 2016, 2019, and 2021 data. Overall, we found that digital self-harm had increased over that period. Results showed that at least 9-12% of the youth had participated in some form of digital self-harm in 2021, up from the 4-6% we found in 2016. It is plausible that increased time spent online and decreased access to school-based mental health professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the amplification of the problem, though we did not directly ask youth to report why they participated in the behavior in 2021, or whether the pandemic or its consequences exacerbated their situation.

Digital Self-Harm: The Growing Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

There were other consistencies observed in the combined three-time-period dataset. For example, students who identified as non-heterosexual were significantly more likely (about 2.5 times so) to have engaged in digital self-harm than their heterosexual counterparts. Research has shown that this population is at a much higher risk of engaging in other forms of non-suicidal self-injury. In addition, youth who had experienced cyberbullying were 5-7 times more likely to have participated in digital self-harm. That is not surprising given the nature of digital self-harm involving cyberbullying behaviors. We also know from previous research that there is often an overlap between cyberbullying victimization and offending. That is, it is not uncommon for targets to become aggressors, or for aggressors to become targets.

Digital Self-Harm: The Growing Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

Future Directions

Our research has demonstrated that digital self-harm is a growing phenomenon, and yet many parents, educators, counselors, and others are largely unaware of it. Indeed, when I speak about this research in my community presentations, many in my audiences have never heard of it. It certainly speaks to the importance of carefully investigating all cyberbullying incidents to determine the origin of the hurtful comments. Youth professionals who uncover evidence of digital self-harm should be sensitive and compassionate and must provide appropriate support to the person involved. There likely are significant mental health challenges associated with this behavior.

Future scholarly inquiry should focus on the associated social, psychological, and behavioral precursors and outcomes, as this can better inform prevention strategies for digital self-harm, as well as appropriate responses when such incidents occur. Researchers should seek to more deeply understand youth motivations for digital self-harm and help them to learn more constructive coping mechanisms and solutions for their emotional needs. In the interim, it is essential that parents, educators, and mental health professionals working with young people extend support to all targets of online abuse in informal and conversational, as well as formal and clinical ways when necessary.

The full paper can be found here. (email us if you don’t have access)

Suggested citation: Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2024). Adolescent Digital Self-Harm Over Time: Prevalence and Perspectives. Journal of School Violence, 1–13.

Featured image: Dev Asangbam (Unsplash)

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