Cyberbullying is a problem. We’ve come to acknowledge this, as part of a wider realization that the “virtual” world is real, and things that happen there have real consequences. A new study suggests there’s another, less studied phenomenon related to cyberbullying, though: adolescents anonymously sharing hurtful content about themselves—what researchers are calling “digital self-harm.”
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, examined the prevalence of digital self-harm, defined as the act of posting, sending, or otherwise sharing negative material about oneself. In an accompanying blog post, one of the study’s authors, Justin W. Patchin, an expert in cyberbullying, describes being contacted by law enforcement about messages posted on an anonymous app. All of them encouraged suicide, and were directed at a specific user. “If U don’t kill yourself tonight, I’ll do it for you,” one read. Police were concerned enough to investigate, but after contacting the app company, they discovered the messages had been sent by the recipient.
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To non-teens, it may sound like a rare, alien phenomenon. Why would someone send hurtful messages to themselves? But Patchin describes recent high-profile examples. Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old from Leicestershire, England, killed herself in 2013. Her father said she received anonymous, bullying messages on Ask.fm for months leading up to her death. Investigators from the site soon found that 98 percent of the messages she’d received came from the same IP address as the computer she was using, suggesting she’d sent them herself. Similarly, last November, in Hebbronville, Texas, 15-year-old Natalie Natividad took her life; bullying messages suggesting “she should kill herself” turned out to have been posted by her.
The phenomenon isn’t entirely new. In 2010, social media researcher danah boyd wrote a blog post about it, suggesting several possible motivations: wanting to look cool (when being criticized is a sign of popularity), hoping to trigger a defensive rally of compliments from friends and peers, or needing to cry for help. A 2011 study tried to quantify just how much digital self-harm was happening, finding that 9 percent of college students admitted to doing it as high schoolers.
But the new study is the first on middle and high school students. It’s based on a survey taken in 2016 by 5,593 American adolescents between 12 and 17 years old, who were asked about a range of behaviors, including digital self-harm. About six percent reported posting something mean about themselves online. Males were significantly more likely to have done so, 7.1 percent of them compared to 5.3 percent of females. Certain characteristics also correlated with a tendency to digital self-harm, including being non-heterosexual, experience with school bullying and cyberbullying, drug use or deviant behavior, and having depressive thoughts and self-harming offline.
When researchers asked students what motivated their digital self-harm, a few themes emerged. Some were testing their friends to see how (or if) they would respond. Others did it to be funny or draw attention to themselves. And others cited low self-esteem and feelings of self hate: “Because I already felt bad and just wanted myself to feel worse,” as one put it.
Patchin notes that this is still an understudied and little understood phenomenon—more research will be crucial in getting a grip on it. But, he writes, parents should be aware that cases of cyberbullying may be, in fact, digital self-harm. Law enforcement should likewise be willing to consider the idea, and respond appropriately. That doesn’t mean simply dismissing it as a hoax designed to get attention. It means recognizing that, even in cases of digital self-harm, there’s an adolescent looking for help.