When discussing how to stay safe online with your digitally savvy kids, there are many topics that come up — protecting their identity on the internet, the ground rules of having their own social media accounts, the dangers of talking to strangers, how not to compare themselves with their peers. But for children who are struggling with their mental health, there’s a new scary online trend that should definitely be on your radar, according to researcher and bullying expert Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University. It’s called digital self-harm, and it’s gaining popularity with young teens at an alarming rate. Here’s what you need to know to protect your kiddos.

What Is Digital Self-Harm, and how common is it?

We’re glad you asked. Digital self-harm, often referred to as self-trolling or self-cyberbullying, occurs when adolescents post, send, or share mean things about themselves online using anonymous social media accounts. “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,” says Hinduja, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

To better understand this shocking phenomenon, Hinduja and his collaborator from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Justin W. Patchin, PhD, decided to investigate the understudied problem empirically. In a new study, the first of its kind to examine the extent of this behavior, Hinduja and Patchin used a nationally representative sample of 5,593 middle and high school students between the ages of 12 and 17 years old living in the United States to find out how many youth participated in digital self-harm, as well as their motivations for such behavior.

The results of the study showed that one in every 20 teens reported that they have anonymously posted something mean about themselves online. Among these, about half (51.3 percent) said they did it just once and about one-third (35.5 percent) said they did it a few times, while 13.2 percent said they had done it many times. The results of the study shocked Hinduja: “This finding was totally unexpected, even though I’ve been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years.”

The Motivation Behind Writing Anonymous Hate Comments About Oneself Online

To better understand what motivated young teens to post anonymous mean comments about themselves online, the researchers asked participants an open-ended question about why they had engaged in digital self-harm. Most of the comments they collected fit into six distinct themes: self-hate, attention seeking, depressive symptoms, feeling suicidal, trying to be funny, and seeing if anyone would react. Boys were more likely to participate in this behavior (seven percent) compared to girls (five percent), but their reasons for doing so varied dramatically. Boys described their behavior as a joke or a way to get attention, while girls said they did it because they were depressed or psychologically hurt.

While age and race didn’t significantly affect the likelihood of engaging in digital self-harm, other factors did increase the odds of participating in the behavior. For example, teens who identified as non-heterosexual were three times more likely to bully themselves online; victims of cyberbullying were nearly 12 times as likely to have cyberbullied themselves compared to those who were not victims; and 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.

“Prior research has shown that self-harm and depression are linked to increased risk for 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,” said Hinduja. “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. What is more, their self-cyberbullying behavior may indicate a deep need for social and clinical support.”

Clinical Psychologist and Guest Co-Host on The Doctors Dr. Judy Ho Weighs In

In an effort to better understand the ins and outs of digital self-harm, we asked clinical psychologist and guest co-host on The Doctors Dr. Judy Ho to weigh in on this important issue.

B+C: Can you talk about your experience seeing digital self-harm in action as a licensed clinical psychologist? Do you agree with Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D, that this practice is more popular than people might think?

Dr. Judy Ho: Digital self-harm is more common than we might think. As a licensed clinical psychologist, I have worked with many clients who exhibit these behaviors and have been trying to educate these clients and their parents about this phenomenon and its detrimental effects.

A good definition of digital self-harm is “the online communication and activity that leads to, supports, or exacerbates non-suicidal yet intentional harm or impairment of an individual’s physical or mental well-being.” It is incredible how this can escape under the radar since it is not the traditional physical self-harm like cutting and burning arms, legs, etc. that some clients do. And the shocking thing is that digital self-harm is becoming perhaps more prevalent than traditional self-harm behaviors.

The examples I have seen range from just a few comments to dozens that span comments on their own Instagram feed or Facebook posts, such as “You look disgusting,” “You’re fat and ugly,” to “You aren’t worthy of love or being alive.” It is really sad how severe they can take the self-bullying, and when I talk to them they usually cite a few different reasons for why they do it, including 1) self-hatred or low self-esteem, so in essence they’re giving themselves what they deserve; 2) as a cry for help, to show people how much they are hurting and hopefully for someone to come to their defense on their own posts; and 3) as a way to preempt other people from hurting them, because if they bully themselves, then if other people add to that feed and bully them too, then they can take it and it is somehow seemingly more within their control.

B+C: How destructive is this behavior?

JH: The secrecy of the behavior and the difficulty in pinpointing it (since many of these individuals will create fake screennames, handles, and aliases for use in self-bullying) add to the destructive potential of these behaviors. This behavior captures a part of the population that is too fearful of actually causing physical harm to themselves, but has such self-loathing that they feel like they have to act on that feeling by beating themselves up psychologically. This is likely to lead to increased symptoms of depression both in terms of frequency and severity, and possibly suicidal ideation and actual suicidal attempts if taken to the extreme. Research has shown that physical self-harm, which is also often rooted in a low self-concept, is related to increased suicidal ideation and attempts, and it is quite possible we will see a similar trend with digital self-harm.

B+C: What signs should parents be looking out for that may indicate their child is practicing digital self-harm online?

JH: It is important to underscore that research and anecdotal evidence has shown again and again that high levels of parental monitoring can help to prevent a number of negative outcomes and promote healthier trajectories in their children. Parents have to recognize and own the fact that as long as children are under their roof, they have the right and responsibility to keep tabs on their children’s behaviors, including who they associate with, how they engage in online activities, and where they are at various times during the day. I encourage parents to talk to their children to help them understand that the use of technology and online social media is a privilege, not a right; and therefore subject to random and recurrent checks by parents as well as rule-setting regarding use of these devices. These rules may include anything from requiring that children only use their laptops in public areas of the home (like the dining room), having knowledge of their social media usernames and passwords, and even providing a phone that does not have smart technology and therefore no access to social media in more extreme cases when the child has demonstrated questionable behavior online.

Parents should look for a number of warning signs, including: 1) secretive behavior and changes to their usual routine (like going to sleep much later, or spending most of their free time in their room behind closed doors); 2) decreased interests in hobbies or activities they usually enjoy and declining participation in family activities; 3) evidence that they are being bullied at school or online, or evidence that they are bullying others; 4) increased sadness and crying; 5) statements that they hate themselves or don’t want to go on with their lives.

B+C: How should parents react if they find their child is participating in this behavior?

JH: Most likely, the child is already feeling a great deal of shame, sadness, and guilt about participating in this behavior, so it is helpful if the parents do not chastise the child but instead take a positive, open approach to dialogue. It is helpful if parents can convey their worry about these behaviors in a calm manner, reiterate that they are there to listen to any of the child’s concerns and ask them how they can help. I think it is tempting for some parents to drill down on questions like “why are you doing this,” or to order them to stop immediately; but those questions or demands are likely to lead the child to close down further and perhaps think of other ways to conceal this behavior so they aren’t caught the next time. Asking open-ended questions and allowing space for the child to talk about whatever is on their mind is the first step to promoting an honest conversation. It will also be important to connect the child to a mental health professional so that there is a safe space to work through the underlying issues (such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or trauma) that lead to digital self-harm, and to learn more effective coping strategies when they are feeling emotionally dysregulated.

B+C: According to the study mentioned above, victims of cyberbullying were nearly 12 times as likely to have cyberbullied themselves compared to those who were not victims. Can you speak to this — why are victims more likely to engage in this behavior and how can we support teens and pre-teens to help break the cycle?

JH: The biggest risk factor for self-cyberbullying was having been a victim of cyberbullying or in-person bullying from others in the past. Victims of bullies who also bully are likely to suffer from a number of problems, including low self-esteem, feeling lonely, and being very impulsive. Often times, people who bully come from a place of great insecurity, which is why they pick on others to draw attention away from themselves, and to attempt to decrease the likelihood that they themselves will be bullied. In addition, they learn how to bully others in ways that have hurt them in the past, and begin to develop calloused ways of thinking and display low empathy for others’ suffering.

It is crucial that we break this cycle, as this subpopulation of children is especially at risk for developing long-term mental health problems and co-occurring substance abuse; are less likely to graduate from high school; and had the highest rates of self-harm, plans for suicide, and actual attempts. It is important to reach out to these children who display this pattern of behavior to help them find purpose and value in other prosocial activities, to strengthen their self-concept in ways that don’t tie to their bully or victim identities, and to facilitate true connectedness with peers. Involving them in structured activities (e.g., sports, clubs) that help to promote self-esteem and collaboration with others, and introducing these children to others who have engaged in the same cycle can be helpful for them to know they are not alone, and to provide a forum for support.

What are your thoughts about the growing popularity of digital self-harm? Tweet us your comments by mentioning @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)