We’ve been concerned about students who engage in physical self-harm for some time. The behavior isn’t new, but it’s expanding in a particularly concerning direction. Over the past few years, researchers have documented an increasing number of cases in which students are engaging in a new form of self-harm: digital self-harm.
As the name implies, students use technology to harm themselves. These young people often establish “ghost” accounts and use them to post mean and hurtful comments about themselves. Like physical self-harm, students report making the posts to cope with pain, gain attention, and blunt the pain of comments they anticipate coming from other adolescents. The messages often serve as invitations for other students to respond with additional negative and disparaging comments.
Several studies show that the number of adolescents engaging in these self-harming behaviors is growing in the aftermath of the pandemic. Estimates are that as many as 10 percent of adolescents have posted something negative or mean about themselves online. Meanwhile, there are statistically significant correlations between students who engage in digital self-harm and other adolescent challenges, including sexual orientation, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and in-person and cyber-bullying.
There also appears to be a high correlation between young people who engage in digital self-harm and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Recent research published in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health documented that young people who engage in digital self-harm are up to 15 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general adolescent population. For LGBTQ young people, the correlation and associated incidents are even higher.
Of course, physical self-harming behaviors can have serious health consequences in addition to the emotional and psychological pain students experience. While digital self-harming presents less physical evidence, it shouldn’t be treated any less seriously. Regardless of the form of self-harming, the behavior is typically reflective of intense pain and feelings of not being able to cope and can lead to even more destructive behaviors.
The complexity of this behavior also means we must proceed cautiously when dealing with what appears to be cyber-bullying. In some cases, what may appear to be bullying originating from other students may come from the student who appears to be a victim. Understanding the full nature of the situation is important before deciding how to proceed.
Identifying students who may be engaging in digital self-harming is more challenging than identifying those who engage in physical self-harming behaviors alone. There may be little physical evidence, and presence of the behavior may be discovered only in connection with other behaviors and conflicts.
Nevertheless, we can monitor warning signs and symptoms. Of course, the causes behind digital self-harm significantly overlap with physical self-harming behaviors. Among the signs to monitor are:
Struggles with sexual identity
High levels of stress
Research to fully understand the causes and best approaches for dealing with digital self-harm is ongoing. In the meantime, we need to be aware of its existence and be ready to help, support, and refer young people who choose to deal with their pain and distress in this manner.