Digital self-harm: What is it and could it be on rise?

The behavior is being red-flagged by researchers whose studies show it occurring among middle and high school students.

In an online forum, a message appears.

It contains a threat against a student from an anonymous source. The person spotting it reports it to a school official, the website or police. After a short investigation, the findings are disturbing. The perpetrator who posted it is actually the student engaging in an act of digital self-harm … or cyberbullying themselves.

The phenomenon of self-harm online is not new. Since 2010, the behavior of self-posting negative comments or memes anonymously has been identified by law enforcement, clinicians, and a few lone researchers who have explored the topic. It has attracted much attention.

However, a new report released by a Florida International University professor and other experts in the field, shows the pattern is occurring and may be increasing. The study done by Ryan Meldrum using data from the 2019 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, highlights that 1 in 10 middle and high school students said they have engaged in digital self-harm in the past year.

So where are the red flags, and why is almost no one discussing it?

“If you’re talking about implications for district administrators, it is a behavior that is so new and so novel, the vast majority of the public has still never even heard of it,” says Meldrum, who works in  FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. “There are experts in the field on physical self-harm that don’t even know about digital self-harm.

“If you were to query district administrators, teachers, principals and parents, I think they would be quite shocked to hear something like 1 in 10 Florida students say that they’ve done this in the past year. I would venture to guess that not all of the senior administrators of the 67 counties we have in Florida are very aware of it.”

However, bolstered by these statistics – 10% of a pool of 10,000 students surveyed in grades 6-12, including 6% who said they engaged in the behavior in the past 30 days – it should be on the radar of district leaders because the practice can have tragic outcomes.

In one of the earliest reported cases of digital self-harm in 2013, a 14-year-old from England named Hannah Smith had engaged in negative posts before she took her life. She had been the victim of bullying. Smith’s case revealed a common thread that runs through many of the reported incidents of digital self-harm. Being bullied often becomes the gateway for those who end up engaging in it.

“There are really, really strong links between kids being exposed to bullying and then saying they had engaged in digital self-harm,” Meldrum says. “There appears to be commonalities emerging when we look at self-harming behaviors, whether that be physical self-harm, non-suicidal self-injury or digital self-harm – the deeply negative emotional and psychological effects [bullying] has on kids and their self-esteem and how they identify themselves.”

How prevalent is it?

Despite the pronounced increase in cyberbullying – more than a third of middle school and high school children say they have been cyberbullied in their lifetime – only a handful of researchers over the years have tapped into this phenomenon.

Two of them – Sameer Hinduja at Florida Atlantic University and Justin Patchin at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire – joined Jacob T.N. Young at Arizona State University in helping co-author Meldrum’s study. Both Hinduja and Patchin are co-founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center and explored the topic in one of the last peer-reviewed pieces on digital self-harm.

In 2017, they surveyed 5,600 middle and high school students and found that 6% “anonymously posted something about themselves that was mean.” They also found the behavior manifested itself not only in those who were cyberbullied but also among those who were not heterosexual, those who said they used drugs and those who suffered from depression.

As to why those students and the current ones engage in the behavior, Meldrum has a few theories that have been echoed by other experts.

“I’m sure some of them are doing it because it is kind of a cry for help,” he says. “They’re trying to get some type of validation or they’re experiencing depressive symptoms and anxiety. I’ve seen other examples where clinicians have had adolescent clients who said they wanted to beat the bullies to the punch and get negative information out there about themselves before bullies did it … so that they can then lessen the blow.”

An absence of quality parenting can also play a part, he says. “Kids who have higher quality relationships with their parents are less likely to engage in self harm.”

Though another report done in 2013 noted that 9% of students surveyed engaged in digital self-harm, Meldrum’s study and that 10% number shows that perhaps it is on the rise. With students online more than ever – because of COVID-19 and their remote work at school and interacting more – it is not surprising.

“You have younger kids, elementary school students, spending way more time online, probably being exposed to more social media platforms,” Meldrum says. “I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to be a middle school student or an elementary school student and trying to focus and do schoolwork online and the mental effects that that has.”

What can schools do?

So when and where are digital self-harm occurring? Meldrum said that because of the lack of research and discussion – and because it can be difficult to spot – there are no clear answers yet. He hopes clinicians can further tap into this behavior to find answers. But he did note that being online does open some potential windows for cyberbullying to occur.

“Doing school in Zoom oftentimes brings in a whole new arena of opportunities for students to be mean,” Meldrum says. “If I Zoom, I have a virtual background, and nobody knows what is sitting behind me. But I’m sure there are plenty of students who don’t have virtual backgrounds who may be Zooming from their bedroom or Zooming from a location where other students might take opportunities to make fun of their surroundings.”

Though the behavior is steathly and difficult to identify, district leaders and faculty can play a part in helping to mitigate one of the variables that leads to it. As the patterns of digital self-harm often emanate from bullying – as noted in Patchin and Hinduja’s study done in 2017 – promoting positive online behavior, enforcing policies that address cyberbullying and ensuring that online spaces are well-monitored are imperative. Schools also should work with parents to ensure that they are keeping children safe in online spaces at home.

One area of focus that should be watched are younger students, given their early embrace of technology and potential to fall into cyberbullying traps.

“I’d like to know how young of an age our kids actually engaging in digital self-harm,” he says. “I think it will be important for elementary school principals and guidance counselors to start to raise awareness and think about kids in second and third grade who might be doing this. The long term question is, what type of implications does this have? Is this a stepping stone [to further behaviors]? Is it a replacement for physical self-harm. Could it actually be beneficial for some people to alleviate negative emotions or does it end up exacerbating them? We just have no idea at this point.”

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