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Opinion We can’t afford to be in the dark about digital self-harm – and its real-life consequences

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: BRYAN GEE/SOURCE IMAGE: ISTOCK

You are almost certainly familiar with cyberbullying, the way trolls – or anyone – can harass and abuse others on social media or elsewhere online. You also likely understand self-harm, the act of physically hurting oneself, usually via cutting.

But now there’s a phenomenon called “digital self-harm” that blends both in dangerous ways – yet another unfortunate online manifestation of our analogue tendencies toward self-inflicted hurt and pain.

Digital self-harm, according to scholars Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, is the “anonymous online posting, sending or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.”

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This can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s as simple as intentionally looking for abusive comments, particularly if you’re someone on the internet with any kind of popular following. In more extreme cases, it means the creation of “shadow accounts”: fake or alternate personas that are used to send hateful messages to the same person’s “real” account. It’s not so rare, either; 21 per cent of teenagers in a 2018 study said they had “done this to some degree,” said researcher Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.

Another recent study by Richard Graham, an adolescent psychiatrist and clinical director of the digital mental well-being service Good Thinking, found that 10 per cent of cyberbullying messages sent on Ask.fm, a popular website for sending anonymous questions, were sent by young people to themselves. In other words, kids and teens are creating content that makes it seem as though they are being harassed or abused.

And digital self-harm has been linked to tragic, real-world incidents. In separate events three years apart, police found that the bullying that loved ones believed had led 14-year-old Hannah Smith and 15-year-old Natalie Natividad to self-harm actually came from the girls themselves. They had each sent messages anonymously to their own social profiles, and told themselves to take their own lives. They did: Hannah died by suicide in Leicestershire, England, and Natalie died in Hebbronville, Tex. A survey by Dr. Patchin and Dr. Hinduja at the Cyberbullying Research Center found that young people who reported being depressed were five times more likely to participate in digital self-harm, and those who said they have hurt themselves in real life were likewise three times more likely to abuse themselves online.

What can we say about the psychology behind these actions? Dr. Englander explains it as a way to generate evidence of negative opinions about oneself and achieve sympathy from friends and followers as a result. “One motive is close to what we call Munchausen syndrome, which is a need for sympathy and attention,” Dr. Englander said. “In a lot of ways, this is a more harmless way to do it” than the more familiar physical methods. Dr. Englander also said some seemed to use this behaviour as a way to justify their own bullying of others.

Others who digitally self-harm simply want to share in the sympathy generated by a group’s victimization. “It’s the power of conformity, which is particularly potent in adolescence,” Dr. Englander said. Some may claim victimization without actually creating evidence, since it’s easy to draft a tweet, for example, that suggests you’ve received abusive private messages.

But digital self-harm has become something of an umbrella term for some experts, helping to define a spectrum of harmful behaviour online, and highlighting a brief historical evolution in what is recognized as harming one's self. One of the most common versions occurs for young people, particularly girls, who are struggling with eating disorders. “They’ll put together collages [on their blogs] of images of models or people who are visibly sick but use them as ‘thinspiration,’ their ‘thin inspiration,’ their goal weight,” explained Jessica Pater, a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech researching online platforms and eating disorders. “These aren’t all taking place on pro-anorexia websites – these are hiding in plain sight on all social media platforms.”

While this is not a new phenomenon, Pater believes it offers a helpful precedent for digital self-harm, because even if these posters don’t see their behaviour as self-hating, they use them in ways that perpetuate their harmful behaviours. These communities do turn from supportive to toxic, for example, when the expectation is that others will reinforce what you already believe about your body. “If you put something out there, a picture of your weight progress, you might not be asking people to critique or insult you, but the style of language is probably similar to that of incel communities,” Dr. Pater noted, referring to the practice within online forums where an “involuntarily celibate” man will post a picture of himself so that other users will critique his features, thus reaffirming his belief that he is genetically inferior and validating his feeling that women would inevitably reject them. For Pater, incels are a particularly extreme case of people using the internet to exacerbate their own self-hatred, and in this case, often proceed to project that hatred outward. In other words, thinspiration adherents and incels act masochistically under the guise of community support – harmful actions that can help us understand how other users might seek “support” from their own attackers, real or not.

Faye Mishna, dean and professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, says digital self-harm needs to be considered separately from cyberbullying, her main area of interest. “Cyberbullying is about power. It fits with dominant societal norms,” she said. “It’s not natural for people to seek out abuse.”

People who physically self-harm often speak of relief. It’s a way for them to regulate their pain, to validate what they’re feeling inside by creating something to genuinely, physically feel bad about. Digital self-harm, on the other hand, seems to be similar, but may have more to do with perception. Young people are constantly connected to social media, and have become hyperaware of how they are perceived by others.

“Twenty years ago, if you had an eating disorder, that experience was usually pretty isolated. But you didn’t have a lot of negative reinforcement," Ms. Pater said, pointing out how the awareness of one’s image online also transforms the experience of interaction, weaponizing these spaces as sources of anger and hate that you can direct at yourself to confirm your flawed inner image. “Cancer patients now, for example, find community and support online. People with eating disorders, by the same token, can go online and feel less alone, even if it validates their unhealthy lifestyle. You’re seeing all these people who look like you, or how you want to look, and saying the things that you’re thinking. And it’s constant, it’s always there, it’s pervasive and you don’t get a break from it.”

Social media run on an economy of attention, which can be dangerous when compounded with mental health. It can be tempting to use the methods available to you, such as by sending fake abusive messages to yourself, in order to get sympathetic responses from your followers.

However, we shouldn’t exaggerate the pervasiveness or severity of digital self-harm before more work has been done. “I don’t see digital self-harm [as] something that is extremely common,” Dr. Englander cautioned. “There may be types of this behaviour that are indicative of serious problems, like those that do it repeatedly, but that seems relatively rare.” Dr. Mishna similarly warned that it’s dangerous to make assumptions when only a handful of studies have been done, and there’s not yet enough data. “I think we need to fully understand it before we can start to speculate,” she said.

Studies have also shown that a relationship between internet use and self-harm/suicidal ideation is associated with internet addiction and frequenting websites with self-harm-related content. It’s not unreasonable, then, to wonder what the consequences of this relationship are. These digital tools can be, and often are, used for good. At the same time, the tool can only respond to its user. “It breaks your heart when you see the technology being used to support this kind of unhealthy behaviour,” said Jessica Pater, a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech researching online platforms and eating disorders.

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And it’s not as simple as logging off. “Parents always ask me how to just make it stop, and if they should just take away the computer or the phone,” Ms. Pater said. “Asking people to cut those ties or drastically reduce them can seem like an impossible task, and could lead to social isolation and just compound the problem.”

What seems necessary, then, is not only more research, but taking steps toward safer, healthier online practices, beginning with education, perhaps in schools, to young people and their parents, to watch for specific behaviours online (which we are still in the process of understanding) and, more importantly, offline. We must educate adults and clinical practitioners about how to understand the social-media use of young people, which is so often foreign to them (see, for example, the recent hubbub parents made over the Momo hoax), which Ms. Pater says the clinicians with whom she’s working are striving for. If parents or doctors or psychiatrists don’t know what to look for or how to understand a teenager’s social presence online, how can we possibly hope to catch worrying behaviour?

That means providing an open and safe environment for honest communication. Many kids and teens just don’t feel comfortable coming to adult figures about difficult issues, and monitoring a child’s social media doesn’t help. Addressing troubling comments or posts gently, without prying, helps build a support system that’s not just made up of peers, but also adult figures – from teachers and coaches to family friends or community members. Adults may also need to accept that some young people might require a counsellor, or medication.

But perhaps more than anything, adults must be literate in and aware of what happens online, not just in your corner of Facebook but in the many spaces young people are exploring and creating. Otherwise, phenomena such as digital self-harm could pass by unnoticed – and kids that need help will continue to suffer.

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