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Digital Self-Harm: What It Is and Why Teens Do It

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Hannah Smith, fourteen years old, received waves of horrible, abusive messages on ASKfm, a social media site popular with teens.

On August 6, 2013, she committed suicide.

Her parents immediately blamed cyberbullies, until an investigation proved that the aggressive posts hadn’t come from peers:

She wrote them herself.


Hannah is not the only one.

A similar story happened in Texas to someone named Natalie.

But it wasn’t on ASKfm.

It was on a different app called After School. After School is a social network dedicated solely to high-school teens. It connects teens with fellow students at their high school and serves as an online bulletin board where students can post anonymously about anything related to their peers, teachers, parties, and more.

Apparently, Natalie received hateful, anonymous messages on After School calling her ugly and telling her to kill herself. This cyberbullying, in addition to the bullying she endured at school, drove Natalie to end her life. Her family pointed fingers at the anonymous, explicit messages on the app calling for her death.

But when After School looked into the matter, they found that these abusive posts were actually posted by Natalie herself.

Self-Posting Anonymous Questions

In a study called “Beyond Cyberbullying: Self-Disclosure, Harm and Social Support on ASKfm,” University of Maryland researchers found that more than half of the platform’s users post anonymous questions to their own profiles to “make them feel better about themselves.” Apparently, just seeing activity on their profile cheered them up.

At the same time, there’s also a tendency for certain teens to post negative, hateful messages about themselves on the site.

This is worrisome. It suggests that, in addition to serving as a platform to receive positive and negative feedback from other peers, social media is becoming a sort of venting space for the voices inside one’s own head.

Teens who engage in such behavior may suffer from mental health issues. For Hannah Smith, the negative voices inside her head – not the opinions of others – are what was put on paper.

Or rather, typed on a keyboard.

Digital Self-Harm

Cyberbullying researcher Justin Patchin calls this type of behavior digital self-harm.

Digital self-harm is the “anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.”

It’s also called self-cyberbullying, cyber self-harm, or self-trolling.

Patchin and his co-researcher questioned 5,700 adolescents and teens to learn more about online self-harm. They published their study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. They found that about 6 percent of adolescents ages 12-17 said they had “anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean.”

Several things that made it more likely for teens to engage in digital self-harm, such as:

These behaviors varied by age. As many as 7.4 percent of 15-year-olds said they engaged in digital self-harm.

There were a few reasons these teens engaged in online self-harm:

  1. They struggled with self-hate and low self-esteem. These teens said they did it “Because I already felt bad and just wanted myself to feel worse.”
  2. They wanted to attract attention. These teens said they did it “Because I feel sad and needed attention from others.”
  3. They were trying to see how friends would respond. These teens said they did it because “I wanted to see if someone was really my friend.”

This is one more reason parents should monitor their teen’s online behavior, text messages, emails, and social media feeds. It’s important to identify, address, and resolve this type of behavior as early as possible.

Advice to Parents

If you stumble upon abusive messages on your child’s social media platform, you’ll likely feel anxious, frightened, and angry. You may wonder what kind of cruel bully would talk this way to your child. You’ll probably start thinking of ways to get back at the bully. You might even be tempted to place a hot-headed call to the school.

However, before you do anything, keep your mind open to the possibility that the messages could have been sent by your own child. You may resist such a notion, but the research is there.

This exists.

As Patchin writes:

“In short, any time a student experiences cyberbullying, there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Even if—no, especially if—the sender and receiver are the same person.”

If your child engages in self-harm, whether online or offline, you must get them professional help. Be aware that it may take time to get to the root of the problem. It could be clinical depression, a bully at school (yes, at the same time), an acute crisis, a gender identity issue, trauma, a drug problem, or a combination of these (or other) factors.  But mental health treatment is imperative.

The sooner, the better.

What Kind of Treatment?

The type of treatment depends on the level of acuity, which technically means how clear and apparent the symptoms of the mental disorder are. A high level of acuity generally means your teen needs professional treatment right immediately. A low level of acuity generally means you don’t need to rush to treatment.

However, only a mental health professional can make that distinction with reliable accuracy.

Of course, if your teen talks about suicide, take them to an emergency room or a psychiatric hospital – don’t wait.

If there’s no immediate danger, but your teen posts messages about hurting themselves, then mental health treatment at a residential center will give your teen 24/7 monitoring they need. As they stabilize, they’ll receive intensive therapy to learn how to manage their distressing emotions. At the same time, a partial hospitalization (PHP) or intensive outpatient program (IOP) will help teens in less acute situations who still need help with emotional regulation and intrusive thinking. Their thoughts and symptoms may come from depression, anxiety, or another mental health, substance use, or behavioral issue. The best way to find out what’s going on with your teen is to seek professional support – sooner rather than later.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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