Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents

One concerning trend in online behavior among adolescents is digital self-harm. We’ve summarized the recent literature on this problem to give you a foundational understanding of the behavior and how best to support individuals at risk.

It’s long been known that the internet has both benefits and detriments, especially for children, adolescents, and young adults. Social media’s rise in popularity over the past decade means that our youth now engage with various online platforms from the time they can read and navigate an app – which means, by the time that they’re in middle school, they’ve been online for years.

To start, what is digital self-harm?

Digital self-harm is the practice of sharing harmful content about oneself to online platforms through posts or messages. It includes posts containing references to sexual orientation; experiences with bullying, including cyberbullying; symptoms of depression; or risky behaviors, like drinking or drug use. Generally, adolescents who engage in in this behavior create unidentifiable personas or avatars so they can remain anonymous when they post negative content about themselves. This practice often leads to an appearance of being the victim of cyberbullying.

While the overall motivation for practicing this behavior varies for each individual, research shows that adolescents do so for the following reasons:

  • to be funny
  • to show that they can be resilient and overcome hurtful comments
  • to find sympathy from their peers
  • to confirm their friendships through reassurance1 

One study found that around six percent of surveyed American middle schoolers practiced these concerning behaviors, with males having a higher rate of engagement.2 It is becoming a pervasive issue, only to be perpetuated with the easy accessibility of social media platforms.

So how does digital self-harm impact adolescents?

As with any other type of self-harm behavior, digital self-harm has a severely negative impact on adolescents. A recent study reported that engagement in these behaviors increased an adolescents’ risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts by five to seven times and increased their risk of attempting suicide by fifteen times.3

Digital self-harm, as with other types of self-harm, may exacerbate feelings of self-hatred or self-resentment. It may lower self-esteem and also lead to isolation from peers or loved ones. It is commonly associated with adolescent depression or anxiety and can be a symptom of a larger mental health condition.

Most importantly, what can we do to reduce this problem?

In an effort to reduce the occurrence of this issue, it’s important to limit adolescents’ access to and internalization of social media. Social media’s connection to increased mental health concerns has been apparent since the early 2010s and continues to strengthen. As a parent, setting limits to internet exposure and closely monitoring your child’s online engagement can help them avoid the negative impacts of social media.

Leading an overall healthy physical lifestyle can also protect adolescents from digital self-harm. A study looking at sleep’s connection to this behavior showed that a longer sleep duration lowered the incidence of digital self-harm.4

Having a strong support network can also help struggling adolescent. They will have more people they can turn to when they’re feeling upset. Rather than turning to negative online comments, they can talk through their feelings with a trusted adult.

Lastly, if you think that your adolescent is struggling with self-harm behaviors, it may be time to consider seeking professional help. Therapy can be a powerful support for adolescents, as it allows them to express their emotions and  teaches them how to cope with distress from an experienced professional.

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  1. Pacheco, E., Melhuish, N., & Fiske, J. (2019). Digital Self-Harm: Prevalence, Motivations and Outcomes for Teens Who Cyberbully Themselves. SSRN.
  2. Patchin, J.W. & Hinduja, S. (2017). Digital self-harm among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(6), 761-766.
  3. Patchin, J.W., Hinduja, S., Meldrum, R.C. (2022). Digital self-harm and suicidality among adolescents. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 28(1), 52-59.
  4. Semenza, D.C., Meldrum, R.C., Testa, A. & Jackson, D.B. (2021). Sleep duration, depressive symptoms, and digital self-harm among adolescents. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 27(2), 103-110.

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