What Every Parent Should Know About Digital Self-Harm

Digital self-harm is a relatively new phenomenon which has little public awareness. In saying that, this past year I have had quite a few opportunities to personally support young people who have digitally self-harmed, as well as schools and parents who have suspected digital self-harm. Each time, I have realised the gravity of the issue and complexities facing this generation. I have definitely gained greater empathy and a deeper understanding of the overall psychological needs of this generation.

In my research I found that digital self-harm was definitely an area which young people were far more aware of than adults. When a local mum asked her 12 and 14 year-olds whether they had heard of ‘kids bullying themselves online’ they responded, “Yeah they do it to get attention.” She was shocked by their cold and matter-of-fact reaction, especially as she had never heard the term ‘digital self-harm’ before. My interactions with many school staff and professionals reflect the same tone.

Unfortunately, I personally believe the awareness of digital self-harm is still yet to fully surface in homes and schools.  With 35% of young people saying that digital self-harm was successful in achieving what they wanted it to achieve, I anticipate it will be a strategy that continues to rise in popularity [26].  Because of this, it is critical that parents and professional are aware and forearmed to tackle conversations, as the implications may be catastrophic if we are not prepared. 

Digital self-harm is known as the online variant of self-harm. It is also called self-cyberbullying, cyber self-harm or self-trolling. Digital self-harm is the posting or sharing of demeaning information about oneself anonymously online.  It usually occurs when someone creates an anonymous online account and cyber-bullies themselves, posting hateful or negative comments to harm their reputation.  

Digital self-harm can be a single comment or hundreds of comments on a young person’s Instagram feed, through SMS, email, social media, gaming consoles, web forums or any other online platform that can be conceived.  Comments can be posted by fake screen names, ‘handles’ and aliases made up by a young person.  Examples of comments might be, “if u only knew how much ur boyfriend hated u”, “u r fat”, “don’t come and sit with us tomorrow”, “no one likes you anyway”, “u are a useless waste of space”, “your new haircut looks disgusting”, and “u think you are something special but u aren’t.”

Think of a young person in their room at night alone, using a few fake accounts to bully themselves with hateful comments. Their friends see those comments and have a chance to respond to them, both defending them or even encouraging the bullying. The actual person and the bully can continue to respond, until late into the night!  Sometimes a young person will approach the school guidance officer, or trusted friends the next morning in an attempt to reach out for help for the online bullying, which they themselves started.

Approximately 6% of adolescents aged 12 -17 engage in digital self-harm.  Other surveys have found that approximately 9% of young people engage in the practice.  While these percentages are not very large, they do indicate a problem when extrapolated out to the millions of teens in the US.  Although there is limited research in this area, digital self-harm is something we need to be aware of as parents, as its participation rates mirror those of traditional self-harm.

The intensely private nature of this topic means that further information will continue to surface over time.  Sadly, digital self-harm has been difficult for parents and educators to identify.   Here are some of the warning signs to look out for:

o   change in sleep or eating habits

o   lack of interest in social activities

o   withdrawal from friends and family

o   drop in grades at school

o   sadness or anxiety

o   agitation when receiving texts or notifications

o   inability to detach from devices

o   change to routine such as going to sleep later or waking up earlier

o   internet activity through the night

o   spending free time isolated or in their bedroom

o   bullying at school or friendship dramas


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You can find more on this topic in my book 'Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help” available from michellemitchell.org


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