The rise of ‘digital self-harm’: More children are cyber-bullying themselves, but why?

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Content warning: This post contains themes of suicide and self-harm that some readers may find triggering.

The family of 14-year-old Hannah Smith were devastated when she ended her own life. They believed the bright, clever teen from Leicestershire in the UK was driven to suicide by bullies.

A series of hateful messages about Hannah had been posted on the social media site Ask.fm in the months before her death. Her father spoke out against internet trolls. Even Prime Minister David Cameron got involved, calling for tighter regulation of social media sites.

But there was a shock in store for Hannah’s family. Police investigating her death found she had posted the hateful messages herself.

There was no doubt Hannah had been bullied in the past. Her sister Joanne said she had been targeted for three years at school. Her father David explained that Hannah had gone to a party where someone had smashed her head against a wall twice.

But the cyber-bullying on Ask.fm was all from Hannah.

The tragic death of the UK teen, which happened in 2013, caught the attention of Dr Justin Patchin at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Dr Patchin had spent a decade studying cyber-bullying, but had never heard of teens cyber-bullying themselves.

He and another researcher, Dr Sameer Hinduja, decided to ask more than 5000 US teens if they’d ever anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean.

They were stunned to discover that nearly six per cent of the teens said they had. They published their results in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

While a few boys admitted they’d just done it as a joke, there were usually more serious reasons behind it. Girls most often reported cyber-bullying themselves because they were depressed or otherwise hurting psychologically.

“There is more of a possibility that the behaviours in girls could escalate and lead to attempted suicide or suicide,” Dr Patchin says.

“Sending hurtful messages to themselves in a more public way may be a way to make the other bullying more visible. In other words, it’s a cry for help.” (Image: BBC/TV screenshot)

The teens who cyber-bullied themselves were highly likely to have already been victims of bullying or cyber-bullying.

“Sending hurtful messages to themselves in a more public way may be a way to make the other bullying more visible,” Dr Patchin explains. “In other words, it’s a cry for help.”

Teens are cyber bullying themselves in Australia too. Perth-based psychologist Jordan Foster, who specialises in mental health issues relating to social media and technology, says she’s had young people come to her and say they’ve posted things about themselves online.

“I’ve seen one girl who was 14 who actually created an Instagram page about herself that was bullying her,” she tells Mamamia. “That victimisation of herself meant that she was met with a lot of social support.”

The support from other students was exactly what the girl was looking for, so she kept up the cyber-bullying. But eventually the other students got tired of supporting her.

“She felt very betrayed,” Foster explains. “She ended up reporting that she felt worse.”

In another case, a 12-year-old set up a broader bullying page on Instagram where she included attacks on herself.

“When we spoke to her about why, she mentioned that her parents were putting a lot of pressure on her because of school and she felt she needed time to get away from that. If she was being bullied, then her parents became empathetic towards her and she had a more supportive relationship with her parents.”

Foster says if a young person is cyber-bullying themselves, it suggests that there are other things going on.

LISTEN: Rebecca Sparrow shares her advice on using social media safely (post continues after audio...)

“It’s rare that a young person who is feeling good about themselves will write a negative comment about themselves.”

She says parents need to have open communication with their children, to get some insight into how they’re feeling. They should have an understanding of their child’s support network, so they know if that needs attention.

“Things for parents to keep in mind are: What are that young person’s social relationships like? Do they have a lot of friends? Do they see them very often? Are there conflicts happening at school?”

Foster says parents should watch out for red flags: a young person spending a lot of time in their room alone, not wanting to be around the family, being secretive about what they’re doing on the internet, and fluctuating moods.

“Hopefully, for parents, if the communication is there in the first place, and they are looking out for the red flags, they can address what might be going on prior to it getting out of hand.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please seek help from a medical professional or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. For resources on talking to young people about mental health, please visit Headspace. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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