Digital Self Harm

Trigger Warning: Self Harm 

Earlier this week we wrote about traditional forms of self-injury behaviors that occur such as burning and cutting. These traditional behaviors usually leave a visible mark on a person’s body. However, as technology advances and more teenagers engage in online activities, a new form of self-harm behavior has emerged: digital self-harm.

social media

Digital self-harm can take on many forms similarly to traditional self-harm. It can include sending yourself hurtful messages, and posting or disclosing demeaning information about yourself online. These posts can also lead to other people writing negative comments/message about you online. A new study found that 6% of the teenagers aged 12-17 in the US engaged in digital self-harm.

Why are teens participating in digital self-harm? According to danah boyd, Ph.D. (she does not capitalize her name!), a Harvard-affiliated researcher who first saw that teens were engaging in digital self-harm, these behaviors serve different purposes for different individuals. It can validate teenagers’ insecurities. It allows them to vocalize their frustrations and disappointments about themselves that they hold inside. Some teenagers also hope that their vicious digital attacks against themselves might trigger their family and friends to support them publicly. When people stand up for them, they can feel hope and support from those people.

What should you do if you are feeling an urge to engage in digital self-harm? We have a few suggestions:

  • Go back to our blog about traditional self-harm. Digital and traditional self-harm share a lot of similarities. The reasons behind partaking in digital self-harm often overlap with the reasons behind traditional self-harm.
  • Dig a little deeper about why you might want to engage in these behaviors and see if you can substitute them for other activities which might be able to serve the same purpose for you.
  • Remember the power of community and support. You should never have to go through this alone! Talk with an adult you trust about how you feel, and ask for his/her feedback and support.

If you notice that someone else might be engaging in self-harm behaviors, danah boyd pointed out that consistent love and support is always the answer. Instead of trying to “fix the problems”, we should take on the role as a listener, a friend, and a supporter. Healthy and consistent, but not overwhelming, involvement in teenagers’ lives is the key to helping them reduce self-harm behaviors. Victims often attempt to injure themselves with the hope of regaining control of their lives, so we certainly want them to feel in control as we interact with them.

Have you heard of digital self-harm? Do you know of anyone who might be participating in this behavior? Why do you think teenagers might engage in it and what are some things we can do as family members and friends to help? If you feel comfortable, please share on the comment section down below.

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Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: https://sova.pitt.edu/i-need-help-now We look forward to talking to you!

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