By JAMILA RIZVI
Warning: This post deals with themes of suicide and may be triggering for some readers.
Earlier this month, 14-year-old Hannah Smith took her own life.
A quick scan of the Ask.fm website reveals that Hannah had been sent a series of relentlessly abusive messages. Amongst the cruel taunts she received were comments calling for her to “drink bleach”, “go get cancer” and “go die”.
Desperate to ensure that what happened to their beloved daughter would not happen to others, Hannah’s parents have since called for the Ask.fm website to be taken down.
Ask.fm is a social networking platform popular amongst teenagers, where users can ask and answer anonymous questions. Hannah’s parents argue, and many agree, that the format of allowing teenagers to ask each other public but anonymous questions, lends itself to online bullying.
Hannah’s death received widespread coverage in the British media and around the world; another teenager whose young life was cut short because of online bullies. The response was anguished and unanimous: How do you stop people, cloaked in a protective veil of anonymity, from being tortuously hurtful to one another on the internet?
This is a valid question no matter what your age but it’s one that particularly needs answering if we’re going to stop vulnerable young people from succumbing to online bullies.
The only problem is that on this occasion, the online bully may have been Hannah herself.
Investigations by the administrators of ask.fm have reportedly revealed that 98 per cent of the online hatred Hannah was subjected to, was posted from her own IP address.
The teenager was logging onto Ask.fm anonymously, posting hate-filled and accusatory questions and then answering them herself. The vast majority of the abusive messages were sent from the teenager’s own computer.
When you first hear this, it takes a moment for your brain to comprehend. It sounds bizarre. What on earth could drive a young person to publicly trash their own reputation in front of their peers? Why would you, effectively, bully yourself? And, knowing that the vast bulk of the vitriol directed towards her was self manufactured, what could have prompted Hannah to commit suicide as a result?
Astonishingly, this kind of online anonymous self hatred is becoming increasingly common.
In fact there’s even a name for it: digital self-harm.
Mamamia contributor Nina Funnell, has drawn attention to the work of Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre, where researchers have found that one in ten first year university students has ”falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyber bullied themselves, during high school”.
Funnell, who writes extensively about online bullying, says that having an audience is critical to why ‘digital self harmers’ engage in this sort of public self hatred. She explains that:
“Anonymously calling oneself a ”loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?… [and] by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’…. By giving others the impression that they are ”under attack”, the afflicted individual is able to communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege.”
In other words? What the digital self harmer is saying online might be completely made up but it has a basis in reality. This is how the digital self harmer imagines others feel towards them.
It may also be how they feel about themselves. And just like cutting and other forms of physical self-abuse, digital self harm is ultimately, a cry for help.
Digital self harm is already being likened to the mental anguish of anorexia sufferers, who have formed their own online communities where they ‘support’ one another to pursue dangerous weight loss behaviours.
By posting scarily thin photos of themselves – with ribs and bones poking through sallow, sunken skin – anorexics are able to draw attention to their pain and fiercely display their pride in defying external attempts to make them abandon their obsession.
There is a validation in sharing your pain with the world. Even if it is manufactured.
Researching this post made me thankful that I made it through high school at a time when having a mobile phone with the Snake game was pretty bloody fancy. It makes me scared for my friends with kids because when you never experienced this kind of environment yourself, how can you be equipped to deal with the darker side of being a young person today?
I feel helpless and pessimistic, as I see legislators and decision makers struggling with how they can protect young people from the uncontrollable world of technology.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a teenager again. Remember when who was whose best friend and where you sat in the playground mattered more than anything else.
Remember when one day you were in, and the next you were out because that’s how teenage girls have operated since the dawn of time.
Remember the constant questioning about ‘how far you’d gone’ with a boy in your class and the endless conversations about who was the prettiest, the skinniest, the smartest, the most athletic.
Remember the nasty and horrible comments kids would make to each other and behind each others’ backs.
And now imagine how much worse it would be if all those conversations could happen online, 24 hours a day.
Imagine having nowhere to hide.
This is the world that today’s teenagers are living in; a technologically advanced world that is full of opportunity for instant communication and instant access to information. A place where teenagers can push the boundaries of their own ability to inflict and feel pain to its absolute limits. And when you’re trying to survive in this type of environment, resilience becomes the most important character trait a kid can have.
If you’re a young person and need someone to talk to you can call the Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800.
How do you teach your kids about being safe online? When you were at school were you the subject of bullying? Do you think it’s harder being a teenager today because of the role technology plays?