Digital Self Harm: Is It on the Rise?

In an online forum, a message appears.

It contains a threat against a student from an anonymous source. The person spotting it reports it to a school official, the website or police. After a short investigation, the findings are disturbing. The perpetrator who posted it is actually the student engaging in an act of digital self-harm … or cyberbullying themselves.

The behavior is being red-flagged by researchers whose studies show it occurring among middle and high school students.

The phenomenon of self-harm online is not new. Since 2010, the behavior of self-posting negative comments or memes anonymously has been identified by law enforcement, clinicians, and a few lone researchers who have explored the topic. It has attracted much attention.

However, a new report released by a Florida International University professor and other experts in the field, shows the pattern is occurring and may be increasing. The study done by Ryan Meldrum using data from the 2019 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, highlights that 1 in 10 middle and high school students said they have engaged in digital self-harm in the past year.

So where are the red flags, and why is almost no one discussing it?

“If you’re talking about implications for district administrators, it is a behavior that is so new and so novel, the vast majority of the public has still never even heard of it,” says Meldrum, who works in  FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. “There are experts in the field on physical self-harm that don’t even know about digital self-harm.

“There are really, really strong links between kids being exposed to bullying and then saying they had engaged in digital self-harm,” Meldrum says. “There appears to be commonalities emerging when we look at self-harming behaviors, whether that be physical self-harm, non-suicidal self-injury or digital self-harm – the deeply negative emotional and psychological effects [bullying] has on kids and their self-esteem and how they identify themselves.”

How prevalent is it?

Despite the pronounced increase in cyberbullying – more than a third of middle school and high school children say they have been cyberbullied in their lifetime – only a handful of researchers over the years have tapped into this phenomenon.

As to why some youth engage in the behavior, Meldrum has a few theories that have been echoed by other experts.

“I’m sure some of them are doing it because it is kind of a cry for help,” he says. “They’re trying to get some type of validation or they’re experiencing depressive symptoms and anxiety. I’ve seen other examples where clinicians have had adolescent clients who said they wanted to beat the bullies to the punch and get negative information out there about themselves before bullies did it … so that they can then lessen the blow.”

Excerpted from “Digital self-harm: What is it and could it be on rise?” in District Administration. Read the full article online for additional details and to learn what schools can do to help.

Source: District Administration | Digital self-harm: What is it and could it be on rise?, | © 2020. District Administration

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