How School Leaders Can Understand and Navigate Digital Self Harm

September 9, 2021

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

You may not have heard of digital self-harm, but recent surveys and research suggest that our children are undoubtedly familiar with it.

One such study analyzed data from the 2019 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey. It found that 10% of middle and high school students engaged in some form of digital self-harm in the past 12 months, and 6% had in the past 30 days.

Digital self-harm is not currently a well-understood behavior. However, the study’s researchers reported a strong association between bullying, negative emotions, and digital self-harm. If this is true, it adds to a long list of adverse outcomes associated with bullying, cyberbullying, and student cyber safety.

From a technology standpoint, digital self-harm student cyber safety monitoring will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

What is Digital Self-Harm?

You’re familiar with many types of self-harm that include physical and psychological abuse and how student self-harm and suicide are related. However, Digital self-harm is a behavior that is relatively new to psychologists and researchers.

In general, digital self-harm refers to when a student uses online channels to bully themselves. They will typically use social media, forums, or gaming sites that allow them to remain anonymous. They might also create pseudonyms across various social platforms to self-bully.

The causes and impacts of digital self-harm are still not fully understood. For example, the most referred to instance in digital self-harm articles involved a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide in 2014. That her peers had bullied her was relatively well-known. Still, when investigators looked into cyberbullying incidents following her death, they discovered that some of the cyberbullying directed at her came from her IP address at home.

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Some students engage in digital self-harm to get ahead of those who are bullying or cyberbullying them. Others do so as an outlet to deal with depression or feelings of hatred or sadness. Finally, others report doing it to gain attention from family and/or friends.

How is Digital Self-Harm Related to Other Student Safety Concerns?

Self-harm is a way to release painful emotions. Current research seems to indicate that the same is generally applicable to digital self-harm. Digital self-harm links to a variety of other safety risk factors, including:

  • Experience with school bullying and/or cyberbullying
  • Other forms of self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation

For example, one study found that the complex emotions and low self-esteem that arise from being bullied are big reasons students resort to digital self-harm. Since students are spending so much of their time online, it’s easy to see how digital self-harm may replace other self-harm types.

Toxic online behavior among students, including digital self-harm, cyberbullying, and threats of school violence, must be addressed by the school community to create a safer environment for everyone.

It should be noted that digital self-harm would likely be highly difficult for school administrators to detect. This is mainly due to the anonymous nature of digital self-harm and how schools’ self-harm monitoring technology works. However, the correlation of digital self-harm to the other behaviors and risk factors discussed above might help shed light on the bigger picture of what students are feeling and experiencing. For that reason, understanding the trend may help update your district’s student suicide prevention risk assessments and processes.

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Since bullying and cyberbullying are currently thought to be most directly linked to digital self-harm, cyberbullying detection would be an excellent place to start. While parents, teachers, and guidance counselors are still in the best position to identify issues with students, many schools are using cyberbullying monitoring tools to detect problems online, where adults can’t typically see what is going on.

School leaders should also keep an eye on other forms of self-harm signals. Students that digitally self-harm may be more likely to harm themselves physically and vice versa. Student self-harm detection might incorporate self-harm monitoring technology. However, enabling students, peers, parents, teachers, and school resources to report self-harming behaviors to counselors is the best way to get students in crisis the help they need.

Online threats of various types of school violence are cyber safety risks that school leaders need to address. While there is currently no evidence that school violence is directly related to digital self-harm, the existence of self-harming behavior in schools—either physical or digital—can indicate that there are cultural risk factors at work. Therefore, schools should be monitoring for school violence early warning signs. They should also have a program for training staff, students, and parents on what to look out for.

Today, the IT department plays a significant role in ensuring K-12 cyber safety. Homework, group projects, and classroom instruction are increasingly in cloud apps like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. Cyber safety in schools is increasingly relying on cloud monitoring technology to detect problems that are going on out of sight of teachers and parents.

Digital self-harm is a relatively new phenomenon to us as adults, but it is a behavior that is disturbingly common among school-aged kids. As we continue to use online collaboration technology in schools, district leaders need to understand how to detect the warning signs. Student safety risk signals relate to each other, and getting students the resources they need will create happier, healthier, and safer learning spaces for our students to grow and succeed.

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