The Internet is good for many things, but there are two areas in which it shines: cat videos and cyberbullying. While the capacity for people to be cruel to each other over the Internet is no surprise, we might be cruel to ourselves, too. A recent study suggests that digital self-harm, or self-cyberbullying, is a growing problem among young people. While it might seem counter-intuitive to anonymously smear your own reputation online, researchers found that around one in 20 people between the ages of 12 and 17 had done just that in the past.
The study was conducted at Florida Atlantic University, where researchers surveyed more than 5,500 American middle and high school students about potential self-harming habits. According to their results, nearly six percent of students said they had posted something unkind about themselves online before for whatever reason. Out of those who had digitally self-harmed, just over half said they had only done it once, while about one third said they had done it a few times. However, 13 percent — that's about one in ten — said they had done it numerous times.
If you're thinking that these kids may have bullied themselves as a joke, you're partially correct. Boys, who were more likely to do it than girls, tended to describe the behavior as a way to get attention. Girls, on the other hand, were more likely to say they bullied themselves online because they were feeling depressed. In fact, it was a girl who inspired researchers to study digital self-harm in the first place. In a press release, lead author Dr. Sameer Hinduja pointed to the suicide of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old British girl who committed suicide in 2013. At first, it seemed as if she had been driven to suicide by online bullying from her peers, but as time went on, investigators discovered that she had written the negative posts to herself on social media in the weeks leading up to her death.
"We knew we had to study this empirically," said Dr. Hinduja in the press release.
Researchers included an open-ended question asking students to describe their reasons for digital self-harm at the end of the survey, and their motivations turned out to be quite varied. According to the press release, most of their answers centered around "self-hate; attention seeking; depressive symptoms; feeling suicidal; to be funny; and to see if anyone would react." If you're familiar with psychology, you may recognize these as common motivations for physical self-harm as well.
Given that LGBT people are far more likely to self-harm and consider suicide than heterosexual people, it may not seem surprising that age and race didn't influence self-harm, but sexuality did. According to the study, students who didn't identify as heterosexual were three times more likely to cyberbully themselves. The biggest predictor, though, was a student's history of bullying. Victims of cyberbullying were a full 12 times more likely to say negative things about themselves online than those who hadn't been bullied before.
"We need to refrain from demonizing those who bully, and come to terms with the troubling fact that in certain cases the aggressor and target may be one and the same," said Dr. Hinduja in the press release. "What is more, their self-cyberbullying behavior may indicate a deep need for social and clinical support."
Bullying itself isn't anything new, but the Internet has changed the way bullying manifests. As StopBullying.gov points out, "The content an individual shares online — both their personal content as well as any negative, mean, or hurtful content — creates a kind of permanent public record of their views, activities, and behavior." Once something is on the Internet, it's usually there to stay — even if it's hurtful.
Furthermore, as the digital self-harm study shows, the nature of the Internet also makes it difficult to tell where bullying is coming from in the first place. There are many ways to self-harm, and apparently, cyberbullying can be one of them. If you or a loved one struggles with self-harm, the National Alliance on Mental Illness lists resources on its website.