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Digital Self-Harm Is on the Rise, Study Shows

Young girl using her phone while lying down

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Key Takeaways

  • Digital self-harm, or the anonymous posting of hurtful comments about oneself on the internet, is on the rise in adolescents.
  • A recent study examined the connection between digital self-harm and the negative emotions caused by bullying.

Self-harm manifests both physically and psychologically, and adolescents are particularly at risk of displaying these behaviors. For this demographic, a relatively new method of self-aggression may be appearing more frequently.

Digital self-harm refers to the anonymous or pseudonymous posting of negative or hurtful content toward oneself on the internet or social media platforms. This type of behavior focuses on emotional harm rather than physical, and can indicate the state of a child's mental health, whether it's being used in seeking attention, regulating emotions or as a defense mechanism.

A recent study published in Deviant Behavior examined the connection between bullying victimization and digital self-harm, and revealed that the negative emotions and low self-esteem caused by getting bullied contribute significantly to this behavior.

Understanding Digital Self-Harm

The developmental phase of adolescence is often characterized as an age of extreme insecurity and seeking to belong. As children gain access to smartphones at increasingly younger ages and spend more time online, their sense of self and identity get further wrapped in the trappings of social media, which can be dangerous to mental health.

“That’s where our kids are tangled up right now," says Tom Kersting, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Disconnected: How To Protect Your Kids From The Harmful Effects Of Device Dependency. "They believe that who they are is predicated on how many likes they have, how many followers they have. It’s really distorting their self-esteem.”

Ryan Meldrum, Ph.D.

"Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of K-12 students are likely engaging in digital self-harm."

— Ryan Meldrum, Ph.D.

This distortion can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. For the adolescents navigating these feelings, digital self-harm offers a coping mechanism. These individuals create an alternate persona from which to target mean or hurtful comments toward themselves.

"With a young impressionable mind, it’s better to be noticed than to be irrelevant," Kersting says. "Spewing out all these terrible things about yourself, that provides a platform for getting the external attention that they so desperately seek, but they’re getting it in a negative way because they don’t know any better.”

Research on digital self-harm, also referred to as self-cyberbullying or self-trolling, is sparse. In fact, the study discussed here is only the second peer-reviewed study to be published on the topic. The first debunked a misconception in revealing digital self-harm is committed predominantly by males.

The more recent study, published in Deviant Behavior, worked with data from a 2019 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey that polled 10,000 of the state's middle school and high school students. The survey found that 10% of participants reported engaging in digital self-harm in the past 12 months, and 6% had in the past 30 days.

"Some people may look at a prevalence rate of 10% and feel as though this is a small percentage, but when you aggregate that up to a district, state, or national level, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of K-12 students are likely engaging in digital self-harm," says lead study researcher Ryan Meldrum, PhD. "There is a need to better acknowledge this behavior so that steps can start to be taken to address it or, preferably, find ways to prevent its occurrence in the first place."

Ryan Meldrum, Ph.D.

"It is possible that the prevalence of digital self-harm might be on the increase, especially when you consider the emotional toll that COVID has taken on everyone."

— Ryan Meldrum, Ph.D.

Researchers found a strong positive association between bullying victimization, negative emotions, and digital self-harm. Because adolescents are spending more of their time online, they may be less likely to seek solace in physical self-harm, instead, taking to the internet to alleviate the emotional pain of being bullied.

Although the data used in this study was collected before the current COVID-19 pandemic, Meldrum points to heightened feelings of stress and anxiety in combination with increased use of social media as potentials for exacerbation of this behavior.

"It is possible that the prevalence of digital self-harm might be on the increase, especially when you consider the emotional toll that COVID has taken on everyone, including K-12 students and their isolation from friends, and how that might manifest in mental health issues and behavior like digital self-harm," Meldrum says.

Prevention and Treatment

Another important study finding was that participants were less likely to report engaging in digital self-harm if they felt they had warm, communicative relationships with their parents. Spending quality time with your child and maintaining open lines of communication to discuss emotions and experiences of bullying could prevent digital self-harm.

Beyond communication, it's important that parents and teachers educate themselves about digital self-harm and the signs of its presence. Kersting recommends looking out for a loss in your child's interest toward activities they'd once been passionate about, a drop in grades, increased feelings of anxiety, or a gradual building of tension in the house. These can indicate your child is too drawn into their phone.

To monitor your child's activity on the internet, experts urge parents to download spyware or apps like Net Nanny. These services allow you to view activity, as well as block certain keywords or sites altogether. Dr. Howard Pratt, DO, a children's psychiatrist at Community Health of South Florida, Inc., reminds that children will always be 10 steps ahead of parents when it comes to technology. The ability to see what's going on could prevent future harm.

“When you hand your child anything that has access to social media, you’re really exposing them to the world," Pratt says. "You have to be the gatekeeper.”

Dr. Howard Pratt, DO

"When you hand your child anything that has access to social media, you’re really exposing them to the world. You have to be the gatekeeper."

— Dr. Howard Pratt, DO

If concerns are considerably high, you have the option to go through your child's phone. Pratt recommends doing so with someone younger to help you translate what's going on. Younger individuals—whether they're your child's siblings, friends, or peers—can identify issues of which you may not be fully aware—or calm nerves.

"There could be an important role for peers to play," Meldrum says. "Teens are very tech savvy, and they might be able to differentiate instances of actual bullying online from what might be self-cyberbullying."

If you do discover something concerning, or feel your child is exhibiting symptoms of depression or self-harm, it's important to remember there is help available. Seeking out professional services is in the best interest of your child's mental health and future.

“Once we have dumped the stigma of children and mental health and realize that how your child is feeling is not about how good or bad of a parent you are, you really can help your child by getting them the help that they need,” Pratt says.

What This Means For You

Digital self-harm is on the rise in adolescents. If you have concerns about your child's mental health, communicate with them openly and seek professional help if necessary.

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  1. 7. Meldrum R, Patchin J, Young J, Hinduja S. Bullying Victimization, Negative Emotions, and Digital Self-Harm: Testing a Theoretical Model of Indirect EffectsDeviant Behav. 2020:1-19. doi:10.1080/01639625.2020.1833380

  2. 8. Patchin J, Hinduja S. Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2017;61(6):761-766. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.06.012