When 14-year-old Hannah Smith from Leicestershire, England, tragically took her life in 2013, her family cited months of relentless cyberbullying via the web app Ask.fm. But when investigators dug deeper, they discovered something even more devastating: 98 percent of the abusive messages were sent by Hannah herself.
It's called self-cyberbullying or digital self-harm, the act of setting up a fake social media account to post hurtful messages about yourself. And while it sounds bizarre — why would anyone, especially a struggling adolescent, want to bully themselves online? — it's much more common than previously thought. According to a 2016 national survey of 12- to 17-year-olds, 7.1 percent of boys and 5.3 percent of girls said that they had anonymously posted mean messages about themselves.
Sameer Hinduja is co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. He conducted the digital self-harm study with Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Hinduja and Patchin chose the term digital self-harm — as opposed to self-cyberbullying or self-trolling — to draw attention to possible connections between this destructive online behavior and traditional self-harming acts like cutting, burning or hitting oneself. According to the latest figures, between 13 and 18 percent of adolescents worldwide report to committing at least one self-harming act. And more alarmingly, among young adults with a history of self-harming behaviors, 70 percent attempt suicide at least once and 55 percent make multiple suicide attempts.
"Since we know that there's a clear link between offline self-harming behaviors and suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, it begs the question, is there a similar link between online self-harm and the same sorts of negative behaviors?" says Hinduja, whose study represents the first comprehensive look at digital self-harm among adolescents. The results were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
On the surface, digital self-harm looks like other instances of cyberbullying. The victim receives threatening or abusive posts on social media or via text messages saying things like, "you're ugly and nobody likes you," or "you should just kill yourself." But the truth is that the victim is also the perpetrator, directing the abuse at themselves through behavior that's at once a call for help and a cry for attention.
As part of Hinduja and Patchin's study, which analyzed email responses from a nationally representative sample of 5,593 adolescents, the researchers asked young teens to share reasons why they had sent themselves bullying messages. Some of the kids, mostly boys, said they were just bored and thought it was funny. But more than half of those who admitted to cyberbullying themselves indicated that other people were the real audience or expressed some message of self-hate.
A 14-year-old boy from Wisconsin wrote that he "wanted other people's pity" and "wanted to be validated that someone did actually care about me." Another boy indicated that posting abusive messages about himself might rally a supporting online community around him. "Everyone is going to have moments in their lives hating themselves, sometimes it helps posting about it online ...The internet might be a terrible place, but there [are] tons of people around the world who [are] willing to help you," he wrote.
In general, Hinduja says, boys in the survey were more likely to have participated in digital self-harm as a joke while girls were more likely to do it as an expression of "deep-seated emotional turmoil." Teens who identified as LGBTQ were three times more likely to cyberbully themselves, and kids who were cyberbullied by others were 12 times more likely to train the abuse on themselves.
As one 16-year-old girl wrote on her survey, "After this happened at school, and online, I became very depressed. I didn't like myself very much. I felt like I deserved to be treated that way, so I thought I would get in on the 'fun'."
Hinduja says that this kind of self-harming and self-hating behavior seems completely irrational from a psychological standpoint, but that it's actually a classic example of what are called maladaptive coping mechanisms.
"Adults do the same sort of thing" when coping with depression or abuse, Hinduja says. "Sometimes we indulge in alcohol or drugs, use smoking as a crutch, engage in reckless behavior and reckless choices, sexual or otherwise."
Hinduja says that much more research needs to be done in order to understand the extent of digital self-harming behaviors and its underlying causes, but that it's important for parents, teachers and law enforcement to understand that it exists, and not to assume that abusive and disturbing posts necessarily originated from outside cyberbullies.