Adolescent 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 guide, we’ll walk you through the basics and highlight some strategies you can use to detect and prevent self harming behavior of all shapes and sizes.
Understanding self harm
Before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s review self harming behavior in general, which can be broken down into two types:
- Traditional self harm
- Digital self harm
What is traditional self harm?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, self harm is the act of hurting yourself, either physically or emotionally, on purpose. This can include:
- Cutting with sharp objects to break through the skin.
- Burning oneself with heated items like cigarettes, matches, or household chemicals.
- Hitting oneself, which can lead to additional impact injuries.
- Associating with toxic people, such as an abusive parent, guardian, or significant other.
Although linked to suicide, the act of traditional self harm isn’t necessarily intended to end someone’s life — though they may still have suicidal thoughts. Rather than a suicide attempt, adolescents hurt themselves as a means of confronting (or avoiding) painful emotions.
As opposed to healthy coping mechanisms, kids inflict physical and emotional harm on themselves to temporarily free themselves of whatever negative feelings they’re experiencing. To a young person, this short-term relief may seem easier to deal with than opening up to a parent, loved one, or trusted adult.
What is digital self harm?
Digital self harm — sometimes called cyber self harm — is a relatively new term. 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 hurtful 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 on social media: Kids are digital natives, and social media platforms are a byproduct of this fact. It’s not uncommon for a young person to post about themselves in a self-deprecating manner. But, what might seem lighthearted may actually be a teenager dealing with negative feelings in an unhealthy way.
- Spreading rumors about yourself online: Whether on social media, over text message, or elsewhere, kids may anonymously share false information about themselves online. Usually, it’s something socially damaging or embarrassing, and may even incite bullying.
- Seeking out offensive, triggering, or hurtful content: In lieu of physical harm, a teenager may browse the internet for videos, images, and other media that could feed into low self-esteem or amplify negative emotions.
- Purposely stirring up conflict online: A young person may even search the internet looking to start an argument, knowing they’ll be ridiculed or made fun of in the process. Social media platforms like Instagram and Reddit are common arenas for this type of behavior.
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 recent 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.
Why do students digitally harm themselves?
In truth, the causes of cyber self harm are still not fully understood. However, a recent study hypothesizes three potential motivators:
- Social development: Some adolescents use digital self harm to test their friendships. For example, teens might post defamatory content about themselves hoping to gauge the reactions of others. Kids may also hope to prove their own toughness by demonstrating an ability to withstand bullying or abusive messages.
- Personal gain: Researchers claim that 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 they find personally amusing.
- Emotion: Thirdly, and perhaps most prominently, teens engage in this behavior as a manifestation of depressive symptoms. In other words, self harm can act as an emotional release in response to poor mental health – akin to a coping mechanism.
Who’s at risk of cyber self harm?
Overall, research indicates that about 13-18% of youth engage in some type of self harm, and 6% of American middle and high school students have explicitly engaged in digital self harm behavior.
Ultimately, digital self harm is more common in kids that have an underlying mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder. Overwhelmed by painful emotions, students who experience these conditions are more likely to self-inflict emotional harm, either physically or digitally.
There’s also a notable link to cyberbullying victimization. In fact, youth who’ve been cyberbullied are 12 times as likely to have bullied themselves online.
How does digital self harm affect student health and safety?
Scientists have consistently shown a significant connection between self harm and negative health outcomes. In many cases, without intervention, students can experience health problems as a young adult and well into the future.
For example, experts find that digital self harm puts teens at greater risk of experiencing:
- An eating disorder
- Depressive symptoms
- Poor academic performance
- Fewer job prospects
- Substance abuse issues
- Suicidal ideation
In fact, according to a July 2022 study, teens who self harm online are 5-7 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, and are 9-15 times more likely to make a suicide attempt.
Clearly, this is an immense problem that schools must take seriously. Not sure where to start? Keep reading for a few tips and tricks.
How can schools protect students from digital self harm?
Kids are shaped by their environment, and there are few places as formative as where they go to school. So, it’s on you and your district to ensure your climate is as positive, supportive, and proactive as can be — especially when it comes to mental health.
Here are a few best practices you can implement to get the ball rolling in the right direction:
- Avoid shaming: It’s vital that school staff know how to talk with a student about sensitive subjects, like depression, anxiety, and self harm. A common mistake people make is to blame or shame kids that come forward. Instead, make it known around campus that there are trusted adults ready to listen and offer judgment-free support.
- Stamp out bullying: Because bullying and cyberbullying are closely related to poor mental health, 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 are invited to report incidents without fear of social repercussions. You can also offer Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which teaches students the skills required to deal with emotion, resolve conflict, and empathize with others.
- Identify contributing factors: Be on the lookout for possible warning signs. This is a bit easier when it comes to emotional and physical self harm, as there are visible indicators that could signal a teenager in need. Scars, social isolation, withdrawal, poor academic performance, and mood swings are all common signs of an underlying issue.
- Monitor the cloud: Not all teens are comfortable 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. Believe it or not, they may even leave signs of emotional distress in school-provided cloud services, like Google Docs or Microsoft Word.
To that last point, it’s exceptionally difficult for schools to know what’s floating around their cloud domain. Without visibility, certain safety signals would go undetected. Consequently, depressive symptoms or thoughts of suicide may fall through the cracks.
Fortunately, that’s why schools use Cloud Monitor. With a solution like ours, you can comb through content in Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 for signs of self harm, bullying, and other potential risks. The platform automatically alerts school security when a threat is detected, such as a student discussing 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 ManagedMethods at your side, you’re empowered by an invaluable advantage.