A new study suggests teens are going online to cyberbully themselves

Getting into the how and why of a disturbing trend.

November 10, 2017

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Cyberbullying, especially amongst children and teens, is an ever-growing issue, both in scope and severity. Just last year, Statistics Canada estimated that over 1 million young Canadians were victims of either cyberbullying or cyberstalking. While this issue is demanding attention, in terms of both public awareness and the legal system, another disturbing new trend is seems to be emerging: digital self-harm.

A new study suggests more and more teens are going online to cyberbully themselves.


The study, conducted by researchers at Florida Atlantic University in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is believed to be the first of its kind to uncover the prevalence of this issue. The researchers interviewed 5,593 participants between the ages of 12 and 17, all selected to be representative of the United States' adolescent population. In addition to being asked if and how often they digitally self-harm, the participants were also asked to describe why they engaged in such behaviour.

Of all the participants, 6% admitted to engaging in digital self-harming behaviour, defined here as "anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself". Of that group, 13.2% revealed they engaging in such behaviour many times, 35.5% said they digitally self-harmed only a few times, and 51.3% admitted to doing so just once.

As to why these individuals engaged in digital self-harm, respondents often cited symptoms of depression: wanting attention, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts and even an attempt at humor. While male adolescents were slightly more likely to digitally self-harm than females, it was each's reasoning that was more dichotomous. Males more often described their actions as a means for attention or to make a joke, where females explained they did so because of psychological issues and depressive states. Respondents that identified as non-heterosexual were three times more likely to engage in digital self-harm than ones who identified as heterosexual. Other accelerating factors in those who committed digital self-harm included engaging in self-harm offline (like cutting), drug use, deviancy and depressive symptoms.

Researchers cite the correlation between depressive states, suicidal thoughts and digital self-harm as an important reason why this behaviour should be taken so seriously: it could logically be a symptom of a more critical issue. The fact that it's also often a cry for a response or help is frustrating because of the indirect and covert nature of the behaviour, which makes it more difficult to spot.

A study earlier this year identified 11% of Canadians between ages 15 and 24 as having behaviour commonly associated with depression (making it the most at-risk age group). Even more alarming, teens and young adults have the highest rates of suicide attempts in Canada and yet the least easy access to beneficial health care. Psychiatrists also believe that it's the prevalence of connectedness and the often negative tone of social media amongst young Canadians that leave them wide open to stress and anxiety. While the new study, added to this list of findings, may seem bleak, it might bring to light a less obvious cry for help and present another avenue for early detection and conversation with your teen.