You’ve heard of self-mutilation. But now students are facing themselves as dangerous sources of bullying through digital self-harm.
As the days without social media and WiFi become a more distant memory, communities must work harder to combat bullying, especially when it is found online. Teachers, parents, and community leaders must now be aware of a new threat to children: digital self-harm.
Formerly performed by inflicting physical injury to a person’s own body, self-harm has now transitioned to the online age. Methods of this abuse include posting negative comments about oneself on social media, in chat discussions, and other digital public forums. Though this issue is relatively new, digital self-harm could be a reaction to bullying from others. As the victim is bullied more, they might begin to believe and internalize the negativity they receive.
Digital Self-Harm in the News
One of the most recognizable cases of this trend is the suicide of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old British girl who engaged in self-abuse online by creating disparaging messages about herself prior to taking her own life. According to The Guardian, sources revealed that Smith had been both a bully and victim, yet her digital self-harm followed physical abuse from peers and preceded her suicide in 2013.
This new trend is gaining attention by academics who are searching for answers in this puzzling topic. Recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D. and Dr. Sameer Hinduja call for greater examination of digital self-harm in their article “Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents.” The pair surveyed more than 5,000 students in the United States, between the ages of 12 and 17. “About 6 percent of students have anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean. Males were significantly more likely to report participation (7.1 percent compared to 5.3 percent),” notes the report.
The results found by Patchin and Hinduja are alarming but not surprising. In fact, the team discovered a connection between digital self-harm and previous bullying, underrepresented groups, or high-risk behavior.
“Several statistically significant correlations of involvement in digital self-harm were identified, including sexual orientation, experience with school bullying and cyberbullying, drug use, participation in various forms of adolescent deviance, and depressive symptoms.”
In “Digital Self-Harm: The Hidden Side of Adolescent Online Aggression,” an article written for the Cyberbullying Research Center, Patchin discusses his work with Hinduja and reveals that students who engaged in this form of abuse disclosed different motives. There were children who were seeking attention from those around them, or wished to gauge the reaction from friends to “…see if someone was really my friend.” There were also students whose self-esteem had plummeted, or felt self-hate.
Healing Those Who Harm
Teachers must recognize the signs of this high-risk behavior to save students from the threats of digital self-harm, or any type of abuse. Early warning signs can include students suddenly becoming withdrawn, scribbling messages that attack themselves, a new crop of gossip among classmates, and bruises or other physical signs of abuse – whether from a family member, peers, or self-inflicted.
Engage with students and set up a private meeting to discuss any news or changes in their lives. Offer to research extracurricular or after-school, programs that could cultivate a more healthy mental state. If it appears that the child is in great distress, reach out to administrators and parents, and work together to help the student immediately, which could save his or her life.