Early in our existence as a teen-focused social network that allows anonymity, we learned first-hand about digital self-harm. Digital self-harm, also referred to as self-bullying, occurs when someone posts harmful messages about themselves online. “These can range from people calling themselves ‘ugly’ and ‘useless’, to saying, ‘You should hang yourself. You’re pathetic and don’t deserve to be alive,’” writes Natalie Ktena in an article for BBC titled “These teens secretly trolled themselves online.”
“Nobody cares what you think. Just deactivate your account. No one likes your posts, and you’re a waste of everyone’s time.”
The above message was posted by and about the same teenager. “It was kind of a way to gain sympathy from my friend so that they just wouldn’t hate me at the time,” says Julian. It worked. “A bunch of people I was friends with online would say, ‘Oh don’t listen to the hate’. And then that kind of gave me this satisfaction, like when someone likes your post on Instagram. It gave me that same feeling.”
Julian, who was one of several youths interviewed for Ktena’s piece on digital self-harm, acknowledged that once it worked, it became hard to stop. “I think it can become a bit of an addiction.”
After School is a network where users (high school students only) can connect and share with their classmates without having to use their name. The ability to remain anonymous makes them comfortable sharing things that they normally wouldn’t — from how they should come out to their parents to what has them stressed or anxious. Anonymity also allows students to feel comfortable coming to the defense of a classmate by showing support. As Ktena discusses, this can have an unintended effect of enabling digital self-harmers because they “can end up getting the results they want, whether that’s more attention or more respect.” Ktena notes that digital self-harm “can also be a sign of more serious problems.”
We agree. As research shows, digital self-harm is often a cry for help and a sign of underlying mental health problems.
During After School’s Social Media Safety in Schools (SMSS) event, which focused on using social media to help prevent suicide and address problems related to the mental health of teens, After School CEO Michael Callahan said: “When you experience kids that do show some suicidal tendencies, just acknowledge:
- They need more attention, and
- They want something to change in their life.”
After School partners with Crisis Text Line to offer users who may be in crisis, including those who exhibit signs of harming themselves digitally, the opportunity to chat anonymously with a trained Crisis Counselor. After school also works with school counselors, parents, and local law enforcement to ensure the safety of users who may be at-risk and in need of help.
“Digital self-harm may be a cry for help, but only further study will reveal the best way to battle the behaviour. One thing is certain though – for those staring at a troll in the mirror, they’re going to need more than a block button to beat the bully,” Ktena concludes.
Ktena is right again. Self-bullying is a complex problem that our society is just beginning to learn about and understand. Addressing it effectively will require all of us to work together — social media companies, mental health experts, nonprofit organizations, online safety advocates, users, and others. If we do, there is hope that we will better understand the issue so that we can provide effective help to the teens who are bullying themselves online.