A new study out of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) is the first to explore the extent of a specific form of self-harm among adolescents know as 'digital self-harm,' or 'self-trolling.'
As the name suggests, digital self-trolling is the act of posting, sending or sharing hurtful things about yourself anonymously online in an effort to mimic cyber bullying. The study, published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health, show that the behaviour is both widespread and likely often a cry for help—just like its physical counterpart.
According to the research, "About 6% of students have anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean. Males were significantly more likely to report participation (7.1% compared to 5.3%)." Among the students who had self-trolled, about half said they had only done it once, one third reported having engaged in the behaviour a few times, and 13.2 percent said they had done it "many times."
"The idea that someone would cyberbully themselves first gained public attention with the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith in 2013 after she anonymously sent herself hurtful messages on a social media platform just weeks before she took her own life," said the study's author Professor Sameer Hinduja from FAU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. "We knew we had to study this empirically, and I was stunned to discover that about 1 in 20 middle- and high-school-age students have bullied themselves online. This finding was totally unexpected, even though I've been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years."
Qualitative data from the study showed that many who had participated in digital self-harm were looking for a response. Boys saw the behaviour as a joke, or a way to get attention, while girls said they did it because they were depressed or hurting emotionally. The latter finding is especially concerning for researchers as it suggests a more likely link between digital self-harm and suicide ideation and/or attempts.
Researchers used a nationally representative sample of 5,593 US middle and high school students between 12 and 17 years old. Age and race didn't appear to affect the rates of engagement in digital self-harm, but some other factors did. According to FAU:
"Teens who identified as non-heterosexual were three times more likely to bully themselves online. In addition, victims of cyberbullying were nearly 12 times as likely to have cyberbullied themselves compared to those who were not victims. Those who reported using drugs or participating in deviance, had depressive symptoms, or had previously engaged in self-harm behaviors offline were all significantly more likely to have engaged in digital self-harm."
Reflecting on the findings, Hinduja notes the established link between self-harm and depression, and the risk of suicide. "And so, like physical self-harm and depression, we need to closely look at the possibility that digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts, he said. "We need to refrain from demonizing those who bully, and come to terms with the troubling fact that in certain cases the aggressor and target may be one and the same."