If you have a teen in your family, chances are you’ve thought about cyberbullying. With teens increasingly using technology to communicate and develop relationships, it’s natural for parents to consider whether or not their kids have witnessed, participated in, or been a victim of some form of cyberbullying. A lesser-known threat to teens, however, is digital self-harm or cyberbullying oneself.

Digital self-harm occurs when kids anonymously post mean or derogatory things about themselves online. Kids can set up ghost accounts across social media platforms and use those accounts to cyberbully themselves.

A survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 6% of students have posted negative comments about themselves online. The survey sampled 5,593 middle and high school students between the ages of 12 and 17. Researchers found that males were significantly more likely to report participation in digital self-harm (7.1%) than females (5.3 %). The study linked the following risk factors for engaging in digital self-harm:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Experience with school bullying
  • Experience with cyberbullying
  • Drug use
  • Deviant behavior
  • Depressive symptoms

Why Do Teens Engage in Digital Self-Harm?

A smaller study conducted by Elizabeth Englander, PhD, in 2011-2012 found that 9% of the 617 subjects surveyed admitted to engaging in digital self-harm. Similar to the larger study, Englander found a higher rate of digital self-harm among males (13%) than females (8%).

Dr. Englander found a number of reasons why teens engage in this behavior, including: to get another kid’s attention, to prove they can take it, to get adult attention, to get others to worry about them, as a joke on someone else, and to start a fight.

Some teens might hope to find support by posting negative comments and messages. It can be difficult to come forward and ask for help when you’re struggling with emotional issues, but when others observe this kind of targeted behavior, they might be likely to jump in and help or at least validate the experience.

What we can’t ignore is that similar to cutting and other forms of physical self-harm, digital self-harm can serve as a maladaptive and potentially dangerous way to cope with symptoms of depression and other strong feelings of pain and upset. This relatively new form of self-hatred and self-harm among adolescents is difficult to detect and thereby difficult to address.

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What Can Parents Do to Prevent Digital Self-Harm?

It’s important to focus on the reasons lurking beneath the behavior. While the act of engaging in digital self-harm might result in support, attention, or getting a laugh or gaining acceptance from peers, understanding the feelings beneath the behavior is the best way to figure out how to help a teen.

The teen who wants to make a joke of it and gain positive attention from peers might be struggling with self-esteem and social interactions, for example. A teen who seeks adult attention or wants to make others worry could be struggling with low self-worth or being ostracized by peers. The only way to find out is to engage in open and honest communication with your teen and provide a safe environment for tackling difficult topics.

Check In On Social Media

Monitoring social media with teens is tricky business. On the one hand, teens need independence and use technology to connect with their peers. If a parent hovers consistently, a teen might create separate accounts to avoid the parent’s watchful eye. The flip side of this, however, is that all teens are capable of making mistakes.

Instead of investigating your child’s phone each night, talk about what’s happening. If you happen to notice a comment that’s negatively charged, check the account it came from and ask your teen about it. Talk about why you felt it was highly negative and give your teen a chance to share his or her feelings about it.

All too often social media is treated as a one-time conversation. Parents lay out the rules and then turn away. Teens need frequent conversations to talk about the pros and cons of social media use and what to do if cyberbullying does occur.

Avoid Judgment

There’s no one reason that teens engage in this behavior. Some might do it out of curiosity while others use it as a cry for help. If you find out that your child is engaging in digital self-harm, remain calm. Resist the urge to remove all technology and take the time to connect with your teen, instead.

Get to the reasons behind the behavior by asking open-ended questions about it. “How did you feel when you were posting these messages? How did others respond? How did you feel after you did it?” are all questions that can help you help your teen work through the situation without judgment or criticism.

Help Your Teen Build a Support System

In a time of constant online connectivity, it’s common for teens to feel isolated from face-to-face connections. Building a solid support system helps teens feel less alone. It also gives them a feeling of community. Ask your teen to name his or her trusted friends. Talk about teachers, coaches, school counselors, and other trusted adults who can provide support in times of need.

Get Professional Help

Self-harm and depression are linked with suicidal ideation. While not all digital harm is rooted in depression, and certainly more research is needed to gain a better understanding of it, teens who engage in digital self-harm are struggling with something. Psychotherapy with a licensed mental health practitioner can help your teen unpack the emotions and triggers driving this behavior and learn adaptive coping skills to use in the future.



Last Updated: Mar 18, 2019