Study: Digital Self-Harm Among Teens Real; Here’s What Parents Need to Know

digital self-harmWhen we think of self-harm, most of us think about rituals such as cutting in which a person may physically cut themselves in an attempt to deal with overwhelming emotions. Very few of us, especially parents, think about self-harm manifesting itself in the digital realm. However, according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, digital self-harm is “a new problem” that demands attention.

What is Digital Self-Harm?

Digital self-harm as defined by the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) is the “anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.” A child engages in digital self-harm by creating a fake account that he or she then uses to post mean comments to his or her real social account — comments visible to the public. An example of digital self-harm might be a child posting anonymous comments to oneself such as: “You are a waste of space. Why don’t you just die?” or “You are so ugly, why do you keep posting pictures of yourself?”

Digital self-harm, more simply put, is self-cyberbullying. Digital self-harm has allegedly been linked to two high-profile bullying cases that ended in the self-bullying teens committing suicide. According to the study, 6% of teens surveyed admitted to digital self-harm and males were significantly more likely to take part in digital self-harm (7.1% compared to 5.3%).

Possible Motivations

The CRC study suggested that some kids (in their own words) engaged in digital self-harm to be funny, get attention, or because they had low self-esteem, self-hate or hoped to get a reaction from friends. In a recent NPR story, psychologists nodded to the motivation behind self-harm as the need for others to worry about them, to prove how tough they were, or to get an adult’s or their peers’ attention. One student cited in the NPR story said she posted bullying comments to herself as a way to “beat others to the punch,” in potentially rejecting her. Whatever the reasons for posting self-harming statements or threats, doing so rings an alarm for parents, educators, counselors, and law enforcement.

According to Cyberbullying Research Center’s study authors Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, study takeaways include the fact that 1) Parents shouldn’t ignore the possibility that a hurtful message received online by their child was sent by their child. 2) Educators, law enforcement officers, or others charged with investigating cyberbullying incidents should remain open to the possibility of digital self-harm, and conduct a thorough examination of all available evidence to get to the bottom of the incident. 3) Any time a student experiences cyberbullying, there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Even if—no, especially if—the sender and receiver are the same person.

What Parents Can Do

Monitor social media. Self-harm — digital or otherwise — is serious. Whatever the motivation behind the act may be, digital self-harm highlights a deeper hurt that’s manifesting publically that needs immediate attention. One way parents can know if their child is self-harming is to monitor social media paying close attention to the tone of the social interactions. Go a step further than reading your child’s posts. Look at the comments closely. If there’s a negative or threatening comment, examine the attached account. Is it a real account? Ask your child about the person who posted the comments. Using a filtering tool to consistently know what apps your child uses may help you monitor more consistently and thoroughly.

Avoid judgment. The reasons why a child may engage in digital self-harm can vary from serious emotional issues to a passing curiosity. If you find your child is digitally self-harming, avoid being judgmental. It’s tempting to panic and respond by shutting down all your child’s social media, but don’t. Talk the issue through and try to get to the reasons behind the action. Validate your child’s emotions without diminishing them. You don’t have to agree with the way your child expresses his or her feelings, however, validation shows support and helps your child feel heard and understood. Assess the seriousness of the situation and, if necessary, promptly, get professional help from a counselor or therapist.

Listen, observe. Listening is perhaps one of the most underutilized connection tools a parent possesses. We can gather much about our child’s emotional and social health by listening more we talk in a conversation. Pay attention to body language and tone. Understand the signs of depression or emotional distress in your teen. According to, signs of depression in teens can include sadness or hopelessness, irritability/anger, tearfulness, isolation, loss of interest in schoolwork or friends, lack of motivation, changes in eating or sleeping, abnormal fatigue or complaints of body aches, thoughts or jokes about death or suicide. If you suspect that a teenager is suicidal, take immediate action. For 24-hour suicide prevention and support in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

toni page birdsong



Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family. (Disclosures).

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