How School Leaders Can Understand And Navigate Digital Self Harm

Research indicates that digital self-harm is an emerging trend among students, but it’s not yet well understood

Student mental health is a rapidly evolving area of study that has yet to be truly understood, and one of the newest topics of discussion is digital self harm. Because digital self harm has yet to be researched extensively, it’s likely that educators aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of this behavior.

That’s why we’re putting digital self harm under the microscope — to help school districts understand the phenomenon and what they can do to help. In this quick guide, we’ll walk you through the basics and highlight some strategies you can use to detect and prevent self harm behavior of all shapes and sizes.

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What is digital self harm?

Digital self harm — sometimes called cyber self harm — is a relatively new term. With only so much research conducted on the topic to date, it’s understandable if you’re slow to wrap your mind around the idea. To explain, let’s take a closer look at what this type of self harming behavior is about.

At its simplest, digital self harm refers to the practice of targeting oneself with negative content over the internet. In other words, it’s essentially self-directed online bullying. Here are a few examples of such behavior:

  • Posting a hurtful message about oneself on social media.
  • Sharing self-deprecating digital media that inflicts emotional harm on the creator.
  • Spreading false rumors or negative comments about oneself that may be emotionally damaging or embarrassing.

In any case, digital self harm typically occurs when adolescents create anonymous accounts to bully themselves online. The causes and impacts of this self harm behavior are still under debate, but one key study sheds light on its growing prevalence.

According to data collected from teens in 2019, 10% of surveyed middle and high school students engaged in some form of digital self harm in the past year, and 6% had done so in the past month. Ryan Meldrum, PHD — lead researcher of the study — warns readers against underestimating those figures.

“Some people may look at a prevalence rate of 10% and feel as though this is a small percentage, but when you aggregate that up to a district, state, or national level, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of K-12 students are likely engaging in digital self harm,” Meldrum told Verywell. “There is a need to better acknowledge this behavior so that steps can start to be taken to address it or, preferably, find ways to prevent its occurrence in the first place.”

Meldrum also points out that prevalence rates have likely increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering that 70% of K-12 schools have seen an increase in students requesting mental health services since March 2020, the data seems to support his hypothesis.

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How does digital self harm fit in with other behaviors?

At this point you may be wondering — what’s the difference between digital self harm and traditional self harm?

Simply put, the key difference is that a teenager isn’t necessarily inflicting physical harm on themselves. Instead, they’re bullying themselves digitally, either on social media, a public forum, or on their own.

The motivations behind this behavior are still not fully understood. However, one study hypothesizes three causative types of cyber self harm:

  1. Social development: The first motivation involves thought processes such as wanting to test their friendships. For example, teens might post defamatory content about themselves hoping to gauge the reactions of others. Adolescents may also hope to prove their own toughness by demonstrating an ability to withstand bullying or abusive messages.
  2. Personal gain: A teenager may be motivated by personal gain. For instance, feigning victimization may elicit sympathy and attention from fellow adolescents. Sometimes, the student just wants to generate a reaction that they find personally funny.
  3. Emotion: Thirdly, teens may engage in this behavior as a manifestation of depressive symptoms. In other words, self harm can act as a form of emotional release in response to poor mental health – akin to a coping mechanism.

The study indicates that digital self harm is more common among teens who are bullied, depressed, or harm themselves offline, as well. Thus, there’s a clear link between adolescents who struggle with their mental health and those who engage in self harming behavior. Individuals who experience emotional turbulence are therefore more likely to inflict emotional harm on themselves, whether it be physically or digitally.

In addition to bullying, depressive symptoms and traditional self harm, teens who engage in digital self harm are also more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. Even worse, research has also indicated a link between this behavior and suicide. Per a July 2022 study, engagement in digital self harm is associated with a five- to sevenfold increase in the likelihood of suicidal thoughts, and a nine- to 15-fold increase in the likelihood of a suicide attempt.

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How can schools take action against digital self harm?

Because bullying and cyberbullying are most closely related to digital self-harm, bullying prevention is an obvious starting point. Begin by promoting a positive school climate wherever possible. That means fostering a safe, open environment where students and staff are invited to report incidents without fear of social repercussions.

But it’s also important to note that not all teens are comfortable reporting an incident or speaking up about their mental health. For a young person, it’s often easier to bottle emotion up inside than it is to communicate their feelings to a parent or staff member. That’s what makes detecting toxic behavior an extremely difficult task, especially if you lack line of sight into your school district.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what a cloud monitoring solution provides. Believe it or not, teens frequently leave hints pertaining to their mental health in school-provided cloud services, like Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. Without the visibility of cloud monitoring, these safety signals would go undetected. Consequently, depressive symptoms or thoughts of suicide may fall through the cracks.

By monitoring the cloud for signs of self harm, a solution like ManagedMethods can give school officials an early warning that student safety is at risk. For example, the platform automatically alerts the school security team when a risk is detected, such as a student who is threatening violence against themselves or others.

When student mental health and physical well-being are involved, every second counts. And although digital self harm is a relatively new phenomenon, it’s still important to get ahead of the curve and take action. With a cloud monitoring solution like ManagedMethods at your side, you’re empowered by an invaluable advantage.

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