Depression, abuse, self-harm—these problems are always on the radar for pediatricians. However, there’s a new cyberthreat, and the first large-scale study on digital self-harm reveals that as many as 1 in 20 young adults anonymously posts negative comments about himself/herself online.1
According to the report, 13% to 18% of young adults physically injure themselves through self-harm, and 20% experience serious anxiety or depression. A study from 2012 investigated how these adolescent issues can transcend to the Internet, with the report revealing that 9% of 617 university freshman students had bullied themselves online. Still, though, the trends continued with little academic attention.2
Justin W Patchin, PhD, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and lead author of the study, says it’s important for pediatricians who are working with a patient who has experienced cyberbullying to gather as much information about the incidents as possible.
“While digital self-harm is still rare, it is occurring. Recognizing this as a problem that does impact some youth is an important first step,” Patchin says. “Our research is the first of its kind and therefore there is so much more that we need to learn about these behaviors.”
The study was initiated in response to the suicide of a 14-year-old girl who reportedly had taken her life after being bullied on Ask.fm.
“After investigating, the admins at Ask.fm determined that the hurtful messages that (she) was receiving came from her own computer,” Patchin says. “Even after studying cyberbullying for about a dozen years at that point, we hadn’t considered self-cyberbullying. So we knew we needed to study it more systematically.”
Because this is the first large-scale study done on this phenomenon, Patchin says it’s not possible to identify trends or really even the scope of this problem. “Since the paper came out, several people have contacted us who had either done this or who knew someone who did,” he says.
The study polled 5593 American students aged 12 to 17 years. Overall, 6% of students admitted to anonymously posting something online about themselves. Of these students, males were more likely to post comments, with 7.1% of boys participating compared with 5.3% of girls. Some common threads among those students who participated in digital self-harm included their sexual orientation, experiences with school bullying and cyberbullying, drug use, participation in various forms of adolescent deviance, and depressive symptoms.
“Students who reported being depressed or participating in offline self-harm were significantly more likely to be involved in digital self-harm,” the report notes. “Research has shown that self-harm and depression are linked to increased risk for suicide, and so, like physical self-harm and depression, it is possible that digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts.”
Patchin says he hopes the study will increase awareness about these types of behaviors and encourage clinicians to confront the problem when they suspect it.
“These behaviors are largely a cry for help, and pediatricians can be that source of help the child is desperately in search of, if they are familiar with it,” Patchin says. “Digital self-harm participants need mental health resources to address the underlying causes of the behavior.”
Pediatricians can screen for digital self-harm in the same way that they inquire about depression and physical self-harm behaviors, Patchin says. “Pediatricians need to ask questions to determine if a child has any mental health concerns or is experiencing any negative online experiences.”
The study authors note the need for additional research to better understand the path that leads to digital self-harm, and how it is related to depression and suicide ideation or attempts.