What Is Digital Self Harm?

Earlier this week we wrote about traditional self-injury behaviors that adolescents engage in, such as burning and cutting. These behaviors are identifiable because they usually leave visible marks on the body. However, as technology advances and more teenagers engage in online activities, a new form of self-harm behavior has emerged: digital self-harm.

Digital self-harm can take on many forms similarly to traditional self-harm.

Adolescents compulsively send themselves hurtful digital messages and disclose demeaning information about themselves online. One result?—peers respond by posting negative comments/messages about the original posters.

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: They can validate teenagers’ insecurities. They allow them to express their frustrations and disappointments about themselves, although in harmful ways. Some teenagers also hope that their vicious digital attacks against themselves might trigger their family and friends to support them publicly. When others stand up for them, it gives them a sense of hope and self-worth—but it’s fleeting.

What should you do if you think your child may be engaging in digital self-harm?

We have a few suggestions:

  • Go back to our blog about traditional self-harm. The reasons behind using digital self-harm often overlap with the reasons behind traditional self-harm.
  • Explore your adolescent’s motives for engaging in digital self-harm. Can they substitute them for other healthier activities which might be able to serve the same purpose for them?
  • Remember the power of community. Your family should never have to go through this alone! Talk with your support community about your feelings, and ask for their feedback and support.

If you notice that your loved one might be engaging in self-harm behaviors, danah boyd pointed out that continued love and support is always the answer. Instead of trying to “fix the problems”—which, after all, are not ours to fix—we can take on the roles of listener and supporter. Digital self-harm is often an adolescent’s 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. Gentle, consistent reinforcement of our teens’ value is one key to help them reduce self-harm behaviors.

What do you think of this new phenomenon? If you feel comfortable, please share on the comment section down below.

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