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Digital Self-Harm: Study Dives Into Why Teens Cyberbully Themselves

New Study Is First Survey Of Digital Self-Harm Among Teens

Photo of an iPhone with social media apps
Jason Howie (CC BY 2.0)

We’ve long heard concerns about young people threatening, harassing or intimidating their peers online.

But a Wisconsin researcher has found some cyberbullies are targeting people you wouldn’t necessarily expect: themselves.

“We were surprised to hear about it,” said Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

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He and Sameer Hinduja, also a co-director of the research center and professor at Florida Atlantic University, conducted the first survey research on digital self-harm, which has been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Patchin said he was first introduced to the issue through a case in the United Kingdom, where a teen girl killed herself after online bullying messages that authorities later traced back to her.

“Sameer Hinduja and I had been studying cyberbullying for a decade at that point and hadn’t considered the possibility of teens sending these messages to themselves,” he said. “Nobody had surveyed middle and high school students about their experiences with digital self-harm, so we decided to do so last fall.”

The researchers expected only a few of the more than 5,500 English-speaking teens they surveyed to have engaged in cyberbullying against themselves. “But what we found instead were about 5 to 6 percent basically post threats or rumors or what we’d expect with cyberbullying incidents,” about themselves, Patchin said.

Among those who posted something mean about himself or herself, about 51 percent said they did it once, about 36 percent said they did it a few times, and about 13 percent said they did it many times.

Why would a teen cyberbully him or herself?

The research survey included a question asking students that very question, and Patchin said the results fell into several categories.

“One would be self-hate, that they just felt bad for themselves and they wanted to feel worse. Another one was they were looking for a reaction, they wanted to see if their friends would respond, if somebody would step up on their behalf. In some cases they reported they wanted somebody to talk to,” Patchin said. “A common theme was they were looking for attention. They wanted to see if others would reach out to them.”

The researchers hope to look next at whether such posts got teens positive attention, such as support from peers, or negative responses, such as bullying from others.

“This is a visible way that young people are searching for help,” he said. “I think parents and other adults who work with youth should pay attention to what they see online, should keep an open mind about these kinds of online harassment incidents. It may not be a peer who is sending these hurtful messages, it may be the student him or herself. Either way, there is help that is needed.”

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