Digital self–harm is a growing concern among teens, adolescents, and even adults. It can include anything from bullying oneself on social media to creating fake accounts to post negative comments about oneself. It can be a way to cope with stress and anxiety, or it can be a form of self–harm. Whatever the reason, it is important to take steps to prevent and stop digital self–harm.
In this blog, we will explore the various ways to prevent and stop digital self–harm, including assessing the risks, developing coping strategies, and seeking professional help when needed. We will also discuss the importance of monitoring your online activity and promoting positive online behavior. With the right support and guidance, we can all work together to create a safe and healthy online environment.
What is Digital Self-Harm?
Digital self-harm is when a person posts online hurtful comments or non-suicidal threats about themselves. Basically, it’s a form of cyberbullying. The big difference is that, instead of targeting someone else online, you’re targeting yourself. It could take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. Research also finds that cases of serious digital self-harm can be a warning sign of suicide.
What Does Digital Self-Harm Look Like?
Self-harm can happen on any social media platform or internet forum that allows users to post or share words, images, photos, and videos. A person usually posts the content anonymously or under a fake name in a public space, so others can see it.
For example, you might open a social media account such as a fake Instagram or Snapchat profile. Then, you’ll make comments or posts on your feed that are mean and hurtful about yourself. Self-bullying might involve saying degrading things like “I’m ugly” or “I’m useless,” or you might body-shame yourself.
Digital self-harm can affect your sense of self-esteem and self-worth. In some cases, it can lay the groundwork for other conditions like depression and anxiety. In other cases, a person’s depression or anxiety may actually cause them to post hateful comments.
Who’s at Risk for Digital Self-Harm?
There hasn’t been much research done on this topic, but current research suggests that teens and adolescents are more likely to self-harm online. A 2016 study that surveyed 5,500 people ages 12-17 found that up to 6% of the kids had posted something hurtful about themselves online. Boys were more likely to do it than girls.
A 2017 study that looked at digital self-harm among teens ages 13-17 found that non-heterosexual people were three times more likely to digitally self-harm themselves than their straight peers.
Teens who’ve previously had depressive symptoms, harmed themselves physically, or those with existing mental health issues are more likely to post anonymous self-harm content.
Reasons for Digital Self-Harm
Motivations for digital self-harm may vary. According to research, some of the reasons teens post this kind of content are:
- As a joke or to look cool
- Out of boredom
- To show that they’re tough mentally or physically and are able to bounce back from difficult conditions
- To make friends online
- For sympathy
- For reassurance from friends or strangers online
- To get attention from peers or strangers
- To ask for help or counseling
- To talk to someone about their feelings
- To see if anybody would help them
- To see if anybody would do anything about it
One study also found that boys were more likely to post self-harm content as a joke, while girls mostly did it to gain sympathy, reassurance, or to find friends.
How Can Digital Self-Harm Affect Health?
It can affect your physical and emotional health such as self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence. But it can also be a sign of worsening mental health.
Experts find that digital self-harm is often a risk factor for:
- Anxiety disorders
- Poor educational outcome
- Poor job prospects
- Substance abuse issues
- Eating disorders
One study that looks at teen behaviors found that those who post self-harm online are 5-7 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts, and 9-15 times more likely to attempt suicide.
How Can You Stop or Prevent Digital Self-Harm?
If you think your child or someone you know is posting self-harm content online, there are a few things you can do to prevent it and find appropriate help. You can:
- Block the fake or anonymous account they’re using to harm themselves.
- Track or monitor your child’s internet activity, such as what websites and streaming services they use, especially if they’re 13 or younger. There are several monitoring apps, and you can limit the amount of time they can use the internet or a particular device.
- Alert or request the social media company or website to remove the content.
- Collect evidence and flag any concerning behavior to parents, teachers, or other authority figures.
- Provide resources for mental health support, such as therapy or counseling from a licensed professional.
- Provide a safe space for open communication, and talk to them about it.
- Create resources or options for peers to report such behavior and other forms of mistreatment to schools so they can prevent the self-harm from getting worse.
- Teach your child about publicly available online and offline resources and how to contact them for mental and physical health.
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How to Recognize If a Loved One Is Digitally Self-Harming
Digital self-harm can come in many ways, so it is crucial for people to recognize its signs in themselves and their loved ones. These symptoms are often related to depression and low self-esteem. However, remember that just because someone shows these symptoms does not mean they are self-harming. Instead, observing these symptoms can raise enough concern to start a conversation with the person about it. Some signs that you should be on the lookout for include:
- Depressed thoughts or mood
- Lack of motivation
- Low interest in previously enjoyed activities (e.g., anhedonia)
- Changes in self-esteem due to social media
- Negative body image
- Social withdrawal
- A decline in academic or work performance
- Changes in daily routines and patterns (i.e., changes in sleep and eating patterns)
- Substance use disorder
Risk factors that increase digital self-harm
Some risk factors that increase an adolescent’s risk for digital self-harm include the following:
- sexual orientation;
- previous experience with online bullying and/or school bullying;
- drug use;
- previous experience with physical self-harm; and
- mental health problems, such as depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts and/or eating disorders.
Why do teens engage in digital self-harm?
There is no single explanation for why teens engage in digital self-harm. Experts cite reports that provide several common immediate reasons, including the following:
- to get attention from parents or peers;
- to test their peers’ friendship;
- to see if low self-opinion is shared by peers;
- to prove their toughness;
- to beat bullies to the punch by self-deprecating first;
- to feel validated by seeing low self-opinion reflected in the external world;
- to regulate emotion;
- to punish oneself;
- to gain a sense of control;
- to combat dissociation — feeling numb or disconnected from one’s body or identity;
- to stave off boredom; and
- to be funny.
How can parents help prevent digital self-harm?
Parents can work to help digital self-harmers understand root causes for the behavior and create a positive support network. This is essentially the same approach that therapists take, but parents can do it, too. To do this, parents should:
- maintain open communication;
- check in on children and their social profiles;
- avoid judgment and listen with an open mind;
- help build a positive support system; and
- consult a professional, if necessary.
Experts note that parents may want to blame technology for their child’s behavior. However, technology is merely a tool for expressing the behavior.
How to Talk About Digital Self-Harm With Your Teen
In talking with your child about digital self-harm, try to adopt a curious, open, and flexible mindset in the conversation. If you have noticed any concerning information online, or if your child indicates they have posted negative things about themselves, try to respectfully ask them about what led them to do so, express gratitude for their honesty and willingness to share, offer support, and discuss the possibility of working with a mental health professional for additional help.
Encourage them to keep the lines of communication open and reiterate that you want to help them; this can help reduce the risk of feelings of embarrassment and shame they may feel. It also helps them realize that they don’t have to fear being restricted from accessing social media if they speak up; instead, having open conversations about social media can help them learn the risks and enable them to approach online platforms with more caution, greater awareness, and greater ability to cope with complicated feelings.
Treatment for Digital Self-Harm
Still, it may not be possible for the parent and child to solve this behavior together by themselves. If they’ve tried and the situation does not improve, it’s perfectly reasonable to consult a mental health professional.
A mental health professional can use several therapeutic approaches to develop certain skills in teens who struggle with self-harm, such as the following:
- identifying underlying issues;
- regulating complex emotions;
- problem solving;
- boosting self-esteem in uncomfortable situations;
- managing stress levels; and
- building healthy relationship skills.
The therapeutic methods for building these skills are the following:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This method pushes patients to identify and challenge unhelpful beliefs, thoughts and behaviors.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): This method identifies the need that a negative behavior fulfills in a patient and then replaces it with a positive behavior.
- Psychodynamic therapy: This method explores the patient’s current emotions, past experiences and interpersonal dynamics. This includes analyzing the dynamics between the patient and therapist, also called transference.
These methods have proven effective in physical self-harmers, and experts have confidence that it will have similar effects on digital self-harmers.
Coping strategies for Digital Self-Harm
In some cases, those struggling with digital self-harm may not have access to a medical professional or a positive support network. Experts lay out several coping strategies and skills that individuals can utilize on their own. These include the following:
- Being able to recognize the situations that might trigger the behavior or make one feel out of control. This enables one to plan and prepare for these situations and avoid them if possible.
- Avoiding substance use to self-medicate when stressed.
- Being able to identify complex feelings surrounding a stressful situation. Intense feelings are often made up of many conflicting feelings occurring at once.
- Being able to ask for help. Even if an individual doesn’t have concrete medical or community support, telling anyone about negative feelings can potentially help. Mental health carries various levels of stigma in different communities, but individuals should still reach out if necessary.
- Being able to express pain or manage emotions through certain activities, such as deep breathing, writing or exercising.
Where to get advice and help for Digital Self-Harm
Although digital self-harm is not immediately dangerous, some cases can eventually spiral into more serious behaviors if left untreated, including physical self-harm and suicidal ideation. There are services to help users in a crisis. These include the following:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential, 24/7 support in a crisis. Here is its website.
- Crisis Text Line. Text “HOME” to the number 741741 for free, 24/7 support in a crisis. Click here for its website. Texting this number will connect users with a trained crisis counselor, who will listen and help the user move from a “hot” moment to a “cool,” calm moment. The Crisis Text Line serves anyone in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The number listed above is for the U.S. United Kingdom users should text “HOME” to 85258. Canadian users should text “HOME” to 686868.
People in less dire circumstances should reach out to their primary care physician, who can refer patients to a local mental health professional. Any nearby medical institution is also a source of information. Students can reach out to their school nurse or the university health center if they are in college.
Parents can also search the web for therapy organizations that offer treatment on a wider scale. According to patient reviews, these large-scale organizations can sometimes be unsatisfactory in their ability to meet patient healthcare and cost needs.
Finding effective treatment requires an individual to persist and advocate for oneself, which is easier with the help of a friend, mentor or family member.
Digital self–harm is a real problem, but it can be prevented and stopped with the right strategies and resources. Starting with understanding the phenomenon and how it manifests, to recognizing the signs in yourself and others, and developing a plan of action to address the issue, you can begin to take steps to prevent and stop digital self–harm. By creating a safe and nurturing environment, implementing healthy boundaries and communication strategies, and engaging in self–care, you can help reduce the risk of digital self–harm. With the right tools and assistance, anyone can work towards preventing and stopping digital self–harm.