Digital Self Harm

NetSafe, New Zealand’s independent, non-profit online safety organisation released an exploratory study report on 1 May 2019 which focused on digital self-harm (or self-cyberbullying) by NZ teens [aged 13-17]. 

Digital self-harm is broadly defined as the ‘anonymous online posting or sharing of mean or negative online content about oneself,’ and was identified by Danah Boyd in 2010. 

Boyd reported that parents had made complaints to the social networking service, Formspring about their children being bullied anonymously online and after investigating, the platform found that ‘in some cases, the abusive content had been sent by those children to themselves.’ 

The attention-seeking motivations were not that different from the current ones:

  • Wanting attention, support and validation from parents. It was a ‘cry for help’.
  • Demonstrating their resilience to their friends.
  • Seeking sympathy and reassurance from friends.
  • Making a joke.

A 2017 study in the US found a relationship between digital self-harm, depression, offline self-harm and bullying.

The NZ study found that:

  • Overall, 6% of teens engaged in these behaviours and reveals the complexity of motivations and outcomes which appear to be more prevalent with younger teens [ 13 and 14-year-olds].
  • The prevalence of digital self-harm was higher among boys [7%] than girls [5%].
  • Teens experiencing one or more disabilities are more likely to engage in digital self-harm.
  • 35% of the respondents said they achieved the outcome they were looking for.

The report also revealed the distinctive differences in girls’ and boys’ motivations. ‘For girls, engagement in this digital self-harm seems motivated by the need (and perhaps pressure) for peer recognition and validation but also the consolidation of close social connections….In contrast, for boys, making a joke was largely the reason behind digital self-harm. At first glance, boys’ behaviour can be seen as a naïve act. However, it is also plausible that seeking to be funny or cool might also be another form of looking for peer attention and validation.’

While the prevalence of self-cyberbullying is relatively low with NZ teens, the behaviours ‘were just one aspect of a more complex situation involving a range of online and offline factors’.  

This study shows that identifying and responding to incidents of digital self-harm can be complex and may also cause distress to the parents and friends of the person engaging in these behaviours.

The report highlights the need for parents, carers to be more aware and informed about this phenomenon and the implications for them in terms of providing their children and teens with the attention they look and ask for through this anonymous behaviour.

The key takeaway from the 2017 study expressed by Justin Patchin is that, ‘In short, any time a student experiences cyberbullying, there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Even if—no, especially if—the sender and receiver are the same person.

Related Articles