What Parents Need To Know About 'Digital Self Harm' In Teenagers

A recent study found young people who engage in this behaviour are more likely to consider or attempt suicide.
Some teens anonymously post negative content about themselves online.
Pollyana Ventura via Getty Images
Some teens anonymously post negative content about themselves online.

After Leicestershire teenager Hannah Smith took her own life in 2013, her father told the media that she had been the target of bullying online. Her family’s tragedy sparked calls for greater regulation of social media to crack down on such conduct.

Days later, however, an online platform on which Smith, 14 at the time of her death, was bullied said that many of the messages in question had come from the teen’s own IP address, suggesting she had sent them herself.

This behaviour – anonymously sharing hurtful content about yourself online – is known by researchers and psychologists as “digital self-harm” and awareness of the problem has grown in recent years.

In July, a study found a link between teens engaging in digital self-harm and considering or attempting suicide. Specifically, researchers said that teens who engaged in digital self-harm were five to seven times more likely to report suicidal thoughts, and nine to 15 times more likely to attempt suicide.

This is not necessarily a causal link. It’s still unclear whether digital self-harm causes teens to think more about suicide, or if suicidal thoughts cause the self-harm.

“We still don’t know what comes first,” Justin W. Patchin, the study’s lead author, tells HuffPost. “But we know they are connected.”

What does digital self-harm look like, and how prevalent is it?

Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, says that he was shocked upon learning of the Smith case and has since worked with colleagues on several studies around digital self-harm in teens.

“Digital self-harm occurs when an individual creates an anonymous online account and uses it to publicly send hurtful messages or threats to one’s self,” Patchin tells HuffPost. “Most commonly... it manifests as threats or targeted messages of hate – the more extreme and rare forms of cyberbullying.”

Digital self-harm looks like cyberbullying because it is cyberbullying. The only difference is that the bully and the victim are the same person.

In 2017, Patchin worked on a study that surveyed 5,593 teens and found that about 6% reported posting something mean about themselves online. Males were more likely than females to have done so – 7.1% compared with 5.3% – as were teens who had been bullied or cyberbullied by others, or who identified as LGBTQ.

What motivates teens to engage in digital self-harm?

Like cutting and similar behaviours, digital self-harm is often a cry for help.

“This is not something that kids do just because they think it’s cool,” Cindy Graham, a child psychologist in Maryland, tells HuffPost. “They see it as a way to deal with the problem that they’re experiencing.”

Self-harm can be “a coping strategy to manage feelings associated with deeper and more significant mental health issues,” says Dr. Shairi Turner, a paediatrician and chief medical officer at Crisis Text Line, which provides mental health support and crisis intervention via text messaging.

“Digital self-harm can be a way of drawing attention or sympathy for a teen who is struggling and does not feel equipped to ask for help directly,” Turner tells HuffPost.

Patchin says some of the young people in his research who had engaged in digital self-harm “reported issues with low self-esteem or self-hate.”

Others, he says, “did it to be funny or because they wanted attention.”

In some cases, teens are looking for a certain kind of attention from specific people, posting the remarks online as a sort of test to see if friends will come to their defence.

“If there is then the expectation of ‘I’ll get a lot of feedback because of this,’ then if they don’t get that feedback, that can actually worsen symptoms of depression,” says Graham.

What do parents need to know?

Bullying and self-harm, either separately or apart, are increasingly an issue for teens. At Crisis Text Line, “conversations about bullying increased by 20% in 2021 compared to 2020, and conversations about self-harm increased by 10% compared to 2020,” Turner says.

Unfortunately, parents often have no idea that their child is engaging in digital self-harm. Patchin says he has seen cases in which a child was revealed as the source of their own bullying only after worried parents involved authorities.

Because it’s impossible to keep tabs on everything that teens do online, and because they are often highly skilled in circumventing parents’ digital safeguards – using web browsers to access restricted apps, or creating multiple social media profiles, for example – your best source of information is usually your own child.

“The best we can do as parents is be there for our kids, so if they are experiencing anything hurtful — online or off — they feel comfortable turning to us for help,” says Patchin.

Graham warns against interpreting self-harm as young people “doing it for attention”.

“That’s not the way you want to react to it, [by] dismissing it, because if anything, it can escalate the behaviour or cause even more of a regression in how they’re functioning, so it can lead to more intense cries for help,” she says.

Knowing that you are willing to discuss their mental health issues — and can do so without judgment — opens the door for them to talk about their struggles. You should also encourage children to tell a trusted adult if they are worried that one of their friends may be at risk.

“I usually am pretty hesitant about recommending that kids say something to the kid themselves,” Graham says, adding that a school guidance counsellor is often a safe, neutral figure to whom a child can anonymously report concern about a friend.

“It’s never too early to start having those conversations,” she says, since kids may witness instances of bullying or self-harm as soon as they start going online.

It can be helpful to keep in touch with the parents of your child’s friends, who may hear about an issue with your child before you do.

Signs to look out for

The signs that your teen may be contemplating or engaging in self-harm are similar to those for depression. In fact, Patchin says that in his first study on the topic, his team found that any kind of bullying “was associated with digital self-harm, as well as drug use, depressive symptoms, and offline — physical — self-harm.”

Parents should be alert to changes in their teen, Turner advised. In addition to behaviour like cutting or drug and alcohol use, parents might notice a “loss of interest in activities, changes in friendship circles, withdrawing from friends, increased or decreased sleep, increased or decreased appetite, changes in grades or participation in school activities,” she says.

Turner stressed the importance of open communication and a lack of judgment on your part.

“Most important is to know your child and communicate openly with them as early as you can about their mood swings and your willingness to discuss their mental health,” she says.

You should never doubt whether to ask your child if they are thinking about harming themselves.

“Always ask,” Turner emphasises. “This will not cause them to attempt suicide or self-harm.

Help and support:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.