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‘Digital self-harm’ is a form of self-bullying in which a person targets themselves online and is especially common among adolescents. Sol Stock/Getty Images
  • New research highlights that teens who engage in “digital self-harm” are 15 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide.
  • Researchers also note that the number of young people engaging in virtual self-harm is on the rise.
  • Reasons for digital self-harming behaviors may include an attempt to gain attention or an emotional release.
  • September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and increased awareness and support around this serious mental health issue can be life-saving.

Digital self-harm is a behavior in which a person targets themselves online. This form of virtual self-bullying is especially common among adolescents.

A new study led by Florida Atlantic University shows a significant association between digital self-harm and suicidal ideation among teens.

The results, recently published in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health, indicate that teens who engage in digital self-harm were 5 to 7 times more likely to report thoughts of suicide and 9 to 15 times more likely to attempt suicide. The study collected survey data from nearly 5,000 middle and high school students (ages 12–17) across the United States in 2019.

According to the researchers, no significant differences in digital self-harm behaviors and suicidal ideation or attempt were observed between races.

However, study findings indicate non-heterosexual students were more likely to have engaged in digital self-harm than their heterosexual peers (9.7% versus 4.8%, respectively). Non-heterosexual individuals were also more likely to have had serious suicidal thoughts or attempts than their heterosexual classmates.

Study co-author Sameer Hinduja, PhD, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, told Healthline that digital self-harm is defined as the “anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.”

“[It] occurs when an individual creates an anonymous online account on a major platform — typically one their peers are using as well,” Hinduja added.

Once the anonymous account is created, Hinduja said the individual “uses that anonymous account to publicly send hateful, threatening, or humiliating messages or threats to one’s self.”

This means while their peers will likely see the posts, they will have no idea who is actually behind them.

“Most posts are on forums or social media,” Christopher Hansen, PhD, a licensed professional counselor and clinical supervisor at Thriveworks in San Antonio, told Healthline.

Digital self-harm posts are a form of psychological bullying. Examples may include:

  • “You’re stupid and will never amount to anything.”
  • “You’ve got no friends, and your family hates you.”
  • “Nobody will ever date you because you’re so ugly.”
  • “If you weren’t here, nobody would miss you.”

Teens spend an average of 9 hours each day online — and that’s not including time spent doing schoolwork. The proliferation of social media platforms has created myriad opportunities for digital self-harm.

Hinduja said that he and study co-author Justin Patchin, PhD, have been studying digital self-harm since 2013 and published the first empirical study on the subject in 2017. At the time of the study, Hinduja said the percentage of adolescents who had engaged in digital self-harm in 2016 was around 6%.

Just 3 years later, their 2019 dataset shows that this figure increased to almost 9%.

While the present study showed no difference in digital self-harm rates in males compared to females, Hinduja and Patchin’s prior research shows that males are more likely to engage in this behavior.

The number of teens experiencing serious suicidal thoughts is also on the rise. According to research organization Child Trends, suicidal ideation was around 14% in 2009 and had increased to 17% by 2017.

Despite the new research affirming a link between digital self-harm and suicidal tendencies, the reason behind it is less clear.

“We can’t say that one causes the other, but we do know they are connected in some way,” Hinduja said.

Awareness of the association is critical: It means that when a child is known to be participating in digital self-harming behaviors, parents and loved ones can better understand how the behaviors can escalate and the assistance or treatment they may require.

Approaches used in physical self-harm may include cutting and burning the skin or abusing alcohol and drugs.

Many individuals who use these methods report feeling a “release” or may believe they deserve to feel pain, which may cause them to continue the behavior.

As for the motivations for digital self-harm, the reasons may be similar in some cases, and more complex in others.

For instance, individuals may engage in the behavior as a means of garnering attention, according to Ron Stolberg, PsyD, a licensed psychologist, professor at Alliant International University, and co-author of “Teaching Kids to Think.”

“Even negative attention is rewarding to a child that feels awful about themselves,” Stolberg told Healthline. “For some youth, this might be the only way they know to get people to pay attention to them.”

For others — particularly those subjected to bullying — engaging in digital self-harm could be a means of deciphering who is “on their team.”

In fact, research from 2020 indicates that bullied children are more likely to engage in digital self-harm.

“It may be a method to see who will step up and defend them, who their true friends are — as well as who is going to gang up on them or pile upon the hateful comments,” Hinduja said.

Virtual self-harm can also be a method of regulating their emotions, explained Hansen, or used as a way to punish themselves — similar to physical self-harm.

Left untreated, engaging in self-harm “increases the risk for actual suicidal ideation or attempts and increased depression and anxiety,” Hansen said. As such, it’s critical to take actions that will help prevent yourself or a loved one from partaking in these behaviors.

Here are a few ways parents and loved ones can help a child navigate thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

Seek assistance from a therapist or counselor

Whether you’re self-harming or are a parent with a self-harming child, seeking help from a mental health professional is the optimal route.

“These professionals will utilize proven interventions and strategies to help the individual develop positive coping strategies to use in times of high stress,” Stolberg said.

Ditch your digital device

If digital self-harm seems likely, Stolberg recommended that the individual give up their device until they start to improve, “so there is no temptation to create a digital record or make a self-deprecating post.”

“If they are with an adult and don’t have access to their device, the risk of digital and traditional self-harm reduces greatly,” he added.

Contact a help service

If you feel you can’t speak to a parent, guardian, or teacher about what you’re going through, consider contacting a suicide helpline.

Texting or calling 988 will take you directly to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, where you’ll be connected to confidential emotional support for free. You can also chat online at 988lifeline.org. The service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Teens in crisis who identify as LGBTQ can contact The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors 24/7 at 866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678-678.

Engage in lighthearted activities

Whether picking up a new hobby, making a conscious effort to socialize with friends, or doing a sport you love, trying fun activities that bring you joy “distracts from the cycle of negative thoughts and behaviors,” Hansen said.

The new research highlights the association between digital self-harm and suicide and enhances awareness of how self-harming tendencies can evolve.

Self-harm and suicidal ideation are increasingly prevalent among adolescents. And, “once a teen has been self-destructive, they learn it is a coping option for them in the future too,” Stolberg said.

While self-harming actions may differ depending on whether they’re conducted physically or digitally, Hansen said “the premise for cause remains the same.”

As such, increased measures must be taken to support the mental well-being of young people — to benefit them now and in the years to come.

Help is out there

If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

If you’re calling on behalf of someone else, stay with them until help arrives. You may remove weapons or substances that can cause harm if you can do so safely.

If you are not in the same household, stay on the phone with them until help arrives.

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