Social Media: Digital Self-Harm – A Cry for Help

In recent years, much attention has been paid to the insidious nature of bullying and cyberbullying along with its spectrum of damaging consequences on kids. Online cruelty, put-downs, and threats are the arena for cyberbullying and we are aware of the ease at which social media can spread the messages far and wide. You may have seen horror stories of kids who have been mercilessly bullied via social media and of tragedies when some kids have chosen to end their own lives as a result. Media outlets often flock to these types of stories and it’s not uncommon for these to attack technology as the culprit.

Still, many parents are unaware of the potential of an unlikely source of cyberbullying: Digital Self-Harm. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard this phrase before. It’s not a particularly widespread phenomenon but one, nevertheless, that is serious and worth understanding. What if it actually turns out that victim of cyberbullying is also the perpetrator? This is what is known as Digital Self-Harm. It happens more than you might realize.

A recent (2017) study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that among middle- and high-school students surveyed (ages 12 to 17), about six percent reported that they had posted something negative about themselves via social media. The study’s co-author, Justin W. Patchin,  a professor of criminal justice at University of Wisconsin and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center said, “Five or six percent isn’t that big a deal — until you think about the millions of kids out there. That is not negligible.”

The study also found that kids who had been cyberbullied by others were 12 times more likely to digitally self-harm than their peers who had not been bullied. Further, both kids who had used drugs and those who had experienced depression were more likely to digitally self-harm.

One of the starkest examples of digital self-harm was reported in 2013, regarding the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old from England, who committed suicide after being viciously cyber-bullied through social media. A subsequent investigation determined that 98% of the abusive comments made about the girl came from her own computer.

So, why would an adolescent engage in digital self-harm? While more research is needed to accurately determine the motivation behind digital self-harm, it seems reasonable to surmise that digital self-harm is at least somewhat akin to physical self-harm: a means to respond to the emotional pain a teen is suffering in his or her life and often — a cry for help. Teens might digitally self-harm…

• as an expression of one’s poor self-image.
• as a means to assess how others’ view her or him.
• as a means to assess whether peers will defend her or him when cruel or threatening posts appear.

What Parents Can Do…
• Above all, if your child has told you that he or she is being bullied via social media, don’t hesitate to initiate a thorough investigation. Attempt to identify the origin of the cyberbullying.
• If you find that your child has self-harmed digitally, see it as your child’s cry for help and take immediate steps to help.

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Jim Liebelt

Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family. Jim has over 30 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord culture blog also appears on Crosswalk.com and Religiontoday.com. Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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