As every parent is acutely aware of, social media comes with a number of risks, many of which are new and unfamiliar to us. Although many parents are aware of cyber-bullying, and the self-esteem issues associated with social media, there is another phenomenon called digital self-harm, that has been increasing in recent years.
“Digital self-harm is the anonymous, online posting, sending or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself,” said Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Given its anonymity, digital self-harm can be extremely hard for parents to notice—and it’s hard for researchers to study. However, as Hinduja and his colleagues are discovering, not only is it a relatively common behavior in youth, those who engage in it are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts.
How prevalent is digital self-harm?
In the first study released on digital self-harm, published by Hinduja and his collaborator Justin Patchin, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, data collected in 2016 showed that about 6% of the youth surveyed had engaged in digital self-harm at least once, with males more likely to have engaged in the practice.
“Six percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you extrapolate it out to millions of kids in America, that’s a lot,” Hinduja. “Even if you think about a classroom of 20 kids, that’s one out of 20.”
This number may also be on the rise. In a recent study published by Hinduja and his collaborators, 9% of youth surveyed reported engaging in digital self-harm, which suggests that it may be increasing in prevalence.
Why do adolescents engage in digital self-harm?
“Youth are increasingly dealing with mental health struggles, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hinduja said. “Unless they are intentionally shepherded by caring adults who are actively involved in their offline and online lives, they tend to deal with their stressors and pains in dysfunctional ways, much like you or I might have growing up, as well.”
The reasons for engaging in digital self-harm seem to be varied. In Hinduja’s research, which has included collecting feedback from youth who have engaged in digital self-harm, some of the reasons given were due to self-hate, depressive symptoms, attention-seeking purposes, or due to coping with others being mean.
“Digital self-harm may be a cry for help, it may be a call for attention, it may be some sort of twisted method to see which of their peers will step up and defend them, to identify who their true friends are, and to identify who isn’t their true friend,” Hinduja said. “We know traditional self-harm are tied to suicidal ideation and attempts. In some situations, maybe this is also an attempt to release painful emotions that they are not able to negotiate or reconcile, just like cutting and burning oneself is sometimes linked to an attempt to release painful emotions.”
Digital self-harm is linked to a higher suicide rate
In the latest study on digital self-harm, Hinduja and his collaborators surveyed middle and high school students ages of 12 to 17. This survey, which was collected in 2019, looked at the link between digital self-harm behaviors and suicidality.
What they found was that “those who engaged in digital self-harm were between five and seven times more likely to have considered suicide, and between nine and 15 times more likely to have attempted suicide,” Hinduja said. If you discover that your child is engaging in this practice, it is something to take very seriously, as it is a sign they need help.
How to detect digital self-harm
“Digital self-harm is very difficult to detect, because you don’t know who is doing the aggressive acts,” Hinduja said. “You assume, without a doubt, that it has to be a peer from school or a stranger.” However, if your child is being cyber-bullied, you should consider the possibility that these hurtful messages may be an act of digital self-harm.
“Parents and educators, or even law enforcement, need to realize that the hurtful messages, or hateful messages, received online by a child, could actually be sent by that child,” Hinduja said. “We can’t be so quick to assume that it’s a peer from school or stranger danger online.”
As hard as it is, it’s important for parents to be proactive about monitoring their child’s use of electronic devices, along with their social media activity. “We want to walk a fine line between giving our kids autonomy at a certain age, and protecting them,” said Christopher Hansen, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks.
One clue that something more might be going on is if your child has multiple accounts, including accounts that are either anonymous or under a different name. Another clue might be if your child’s reaction to being cyber-bullied seems a little out-of-character for them.
What parents should do
If you do find out that your child is engaging in digital self-harm, this is probably going to spark a lot of emotions in you, from fear to shock to confusion—but it’s important to rein these emotions in.
“It isn’t even just words, it’s body language, because our youth are so quick to pick up on us, and they’ll just shut down, because we are so judgmental, oftentimes because we are not comfortable or familiar or proficient with the technology,” Hinduja said.
If your reaction is to ask your child why they are doing this, or to get upset with them, then “it’s just going to reinforce the crappy way they feel about themselves,” Hansen said. “This is a real issue, and a real problem.”
Instead, the focus should be on making sure they feel supported and understood, and that as their parents, your priorities are making sure they are healthy and are getting the help they need. “Hopefully all parents and caregivers can put themselves back in the shoes of an adolescent, because it is miserably hard growing up,” Hinduja said.
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress 24 hours a day and can offer resources for you or your loved ones.
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