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What Is Digital Self-Harm?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on January 06, 2023

Digital self-harm is when a person posts online hurtful comments or non-suicidal threats about themselves.

Basically, it’s a form of cyberbullying. The big difference is that, instead of targeting someone else online, you’re targeting yourself. It could take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. Research also finds that cases of serious digital self-harm can be a warning sign of suicide.

What Does Digital Self-Harm Look Like?

Self-harm can happen on any social media platform or internet forum that allows users to post or share words, images, photos, and videos.

A person usually posts the content anonymously or under a fake name in a public space, so others can see it.

For example, you might open a social media account such as a fake Instagram or Snapchat profile. Then, you’ll make comments or posts on your feed that are mean and hurtful about yourself. Self-bullying might involve saying degrading things like “I’m ugly” or “I’m useless,” or you might body-shame yourself.

Other users in your feed might interact with the content through comments, replies, responses, questions, or other options available on the platform. They might also egg on the behavior. That could make the self-harm even worse and could turn out to be dangerous.

Digital self-harm can affect your sense of self-esteem and self-worth. In some cases, it can lay the groundwork for other conditions like depression and anxiety. In other cases, a person’s depression or anxiety may actually cause them to post hateful comments.

Who’s at Risk for Digital Self-Harm?

There hasn’t been much research done on this topic, but current research suggests that teens and adolescents are more likely to self-harm online.

A 2016 study that surveyed 5,500 people ages 12-17 found that up to 6% of the kids had posted something hurtful about themselves online. Boys were more likely to do it than girls.

A 2017 study that looked at digital self-harm among teens ages 13-17 found that non-heterosexual people were three times more likely to digitally self-harm themselves than their straight peers.

The study also found that teens with one or more disabilities were also more likely to engage in this behavior online.

Teens who’ve previously had depressive symptoms, harmed themselves physically, or those with existing mental health issues are more likely to post anonymous self-harm content.

Reasons for Digital Self-Harm

Motivations for digital self-harm may vary. According to research, some of the reasons teens post this kind of content are:

  • As a joke or to look cool
  • Out of boredom
  • To show that they’re tough mentally or physically and are able to bounce back from difficult conditions
  • To make friends online
  • For sympathy
  • For reassurance from friends or strangers online
  • To get attention from peers or strangers
  • To ask for help or counseling
  • To talk to someone about their feelings
  • To see if anybody would help them
  • To see if anybody would do anything about it

One study also found that boys were more likely to post self-harm content as a joke, while girls mostly did it to gain sympathy, reassurance, or to find friends.

How Can Digital Self-Harm Affect Health?

It can affect your physical and emotional health such as self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence. But it can also be a sign of worsening mental health.

Experts find that digital self-harm is often a risk factor for:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Poor educational outcome
  • Poor job prospects
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Eating disorders

One study that looks at teen behaviors found that those who post self-harm online are 5-7 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts, and 9-15 times more likely to attempt suicide.

How Can You Stop or Prevent Digital Self-Harm?

If you think your child or someone you know is posting self-harm content online, there are a few things you can do to prevent it and find appropriate help. You can:

  • Block the fake or anonymous account they’re using to harm themselves.
  • Track or monitor your child’s internet activity, such as what websites and streaming services they use, especially if they’re 13 or younger. There are several monitoring apps, and you can limit the amount of time they can use the internet or a particular device.
  • Alert or request the social media company or website to remove the content.
  • Collect evidence and flag any concerning behavior to parents, teachers, or other authority figures.
  • Provide resources for mental health support, such as therapy or counseling from a licensed professional.
  • Provide a safe space for open communication, and talk to them about it.
  • Create resources or options for peers to report such behavior and other forms of mistreatment to schools so they can prevent the self-harm from getting worse.
  • Teach your child about publicly available online and offline resources and how to contact them for mental and physical health.

If your child, friend at school, or someone you know is feeling sad, hopeless, or is at risk for harming themselves, call or text the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. You can get free and confidential support 24/7.

In case of a medical emergency, call 911 or head to the nearest hospital.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Discover Psychology: “Digital self-harm: an examination of the current literature with recommendations for future research.”

EducationWeek: “What Educators Should Know About Digital Self-Harm During Hybrid and Remote Learning.”

Deviant Behavior: “Bullying Victimization, Negative Emotions, and Digital Self-Harm: Testing a Theoretical Model of Indirect Effects.”

Netsafe.org.nz: “Digital Self-Harm: Prevalence, Motivations and Outcomes for Teens Who Cyberbully Themselves.”

Association for Computing Machinery: “Defining Digital Self-Harm.”

Florida Atlantic University: “Digital Self-Harm Linked To Dramatic Rise in Youth Suicide Attempts.”

Child and Adolescent Mental Health: “Digital self-harm and suicidality among adolescents.”

988lifeline.org: “988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.”

Nemours KidsHealth: “Monitoring Your Child's Media Use.”

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