Digital Self-Harm: What Is It and How Can We Prevent It?

Digital self-harm and self-harm awareness: A powerful image depicting the struggle and awareness surrounding self-harm in the digital age
UPDATED February 7, 2022
Written By Merlene Leano

Recently, the emergence of various types of cyberbullying has become one of the leading and most pressing problems that people encounter in different online platforms— especially on social media. Some users send messages or post false, derogatory, and offensive remarks to shame, discredit, and lower the self-esteem of a particular person. Others even go as far as to send life-threatening messages that push the recipients to end their lives, lose their self-confidence, or suffer from immense trauma.

On the surface, cyberbullying is the digital counterpart of “physical bullying”. It is this definition of cyberbullying that most people are aware of nowadays. Recent studies reveal that cyberbullying is more than what people think or know. In truth, we have only scratched the surface of this modern way of bullying.

Have you heard of the term, ‘digital self-harm’?

If not, picture this scenario:

A mother is skimming through her 14-year old daughter’s Facebook timeline and sees degrading and offensive assertions about her daughter. Hurtful comments such as “You’re a loser.”, “I wish you get hit by a train.”, “What a pig.”, and other disturbing remarks are flooding her timeline. Naturally, the overflowing negativity (digitally) thrown at her daughter is both overwhelming and alarming.

In response, the mother then asks her daughter about the people bullying her online. Surprisingly, her daughter admits to creating dummy accounts and takes full responsibility for all the hurtful comments that these fake accounts have posted on her profile.

The scenario described above, while shocking, is a concrete example of a child exhibiting digital self-harm.

Disclaimer: This is not to say or imply that all the damaging comments and remarks we see online are products of digital self-harm. The majority of these negative reactions are still carried out by real individuals who intentionally mean to cause pain and trauma to other users online. The objective of this blog is to raise awareness of the existence of digital self-harm. At the same time, Chekkee aims to help pinpoint some tell-tale signs that could help parents and communities to identify and address the issue in question and use the appropriate interventions to help the individual struggling with it.

Self-Harm Goes Online: Defining Digital Self-Harm

What is digital self-harm?

Digital self-harm—albeit still being associated with physical self-harm—is a new form of self-inflicted violence that involves causing verbal and psychological abuse to one’s self. A stark contrast to its physical counterpart (which revolves around hurting one’s self through burning, cutting, pricking one’s body), digital self-harm is all about cultivating self-hate through assuming multiple digital personas and using these dummy accounts to convey abusive and offensive remarks on an individual’s social media. The alarming practice is also carried out on other digital online platforms where end-users can interact.

When did digital self-harm begin?

There are no definite details yet as to when digital self-harm was introduced online. Still, the number of people engaging in both physical and digital self-harm has increased dramatically during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of home quarantine across the globe. Recent social media and self-harm statistics reported that between 18 to 29-year old individuals, around 29% admitted that they have been clouded by thoughts of self-harming during the coronavirus lockdown. The worst part is that, of the 29%, a significant number of these respondents have considered committing suicide.

Another striking discovery related to the statistics shows that males are more likely to participate in virtual self-mutilation. The findings are backed by various psychologists, who affirm that the said behavior is more common to males.

Make no mistake, girls are also prone to digital self-aggression. However, say, in a group of adolescents, the chances for girls to engage are lower compared to the opposite sex. Most male adolescents reasoned that they tend to do what they dubbed as “self-trolling” to spread humor or to get attention. Meanwhile, girls often use this as a coping mechanism for the psychological struggles they encounter. These include social anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.

The Risk Factors: Why Do People Engage in Digital Self-Harm?

Although experts emphasize digital self-harm being more apparent in adolescents, it doesn’t mean that adults are not vulnerable to participating in activities that delve into self-aggression. A survey documented by Statista reported that out of 276 respondents, over 31% admitted that social isolation and serious loneliness have led them to the idea of committing self-harm.

Why do people engage in such a digital form of self-aggression? Let’s explore the most prevalent risk factors that increase the likelihood of a person committing digital self-harm.

Let’s start with the What’s:

Sexual Orientation

Although members of the LGBTQIA+ community are already recognized and widely accepted in most countries, a huge portion remains vulnerable to different types of bullying. As such, some LGBTQIA+ members (especially those aged 14 to 18) are provoked to engage in unconventional ways to alleviate the stress and cope with the psychological impact of bullying. Among the coping mechanisms they adapt include physical self-harm, thought-provoking remarks online, and even suicide.

Bullying Aftermath

Often, people with past bullying experiences (either on social platforms or in schools) tend to use digital self-harm as a way to deal with the psychological trauma.

Physical Self-Harm Experiences

As mentioned, digital self-harm is associated with physical self-harm. While the damage and abuse in the former are more transfixed on triggering emotional responses, both still emanate from the same context. In essence, people who have past physical self-harm experiences have a higher likelihood of engaging in self-inflicted digital harm.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Another risk factor that potentially triggers and encourages self-loathing behavior online involves the misuse of substances such as alcohol and drugs. Statistically speaking, substance use disorders are some of the primary contributing factors that push people living with depression to entertain and seriously consider more life-threatening methods of dealing with their situation. Recent surveys documented that there are higher suicide rates associated with high levels of alcohol and drug misuse in individuals aged 18 to 20. Broader studies have stated that a significant percentage of traffic injuries are not caused by accidents but are due to DUI intending to commit suicide.

Mental Health Conditions

Persons with pre-existing mental health conditions or illnesses are more susceptible to the magnetizing pull of activities and behavioral responses that oppose a healthy way of coping and healing. Understandably, people living with anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders, and trauma are in a constant battle within themselves. It is not easy to overcome one’s internal thought processes and deep-seated emotions.

Now let’s proceed to the Why’s:

There are several reasons why people (especially adolescents) engage in digital self-harm. According to reports and relevant research cited by mental health professionals, seven main reasons explain a person’s involvement in self-violence:

  • They yearn for attention (either from their parents or peers)
  • They want to test their closeness with their friends
  • They want to receive validation
  • They want to express their deepest and darkest emotions
  • They want to portray a tough exterior
  • They want to seem funny
  • They simply want to punish themselves (sometimes for no apparent reason)

The Prevention: How Can Families Help Prevent Digital Self-Harm?

Stopping digital self-harm is not a simple task, nor is it a lightweight responsibility. People who have exhibited or participated in the said activity must be addressed with immediate and effective preventive measures.

The best way for this to truly work is if the intervention starts internally. Every family member must be hands-on in understanding and providing full-on support to a loved one living with a mental health condition and taking part in pursuits that do more harm than healing to themselves.

It would be ideal if each family member shows full support and works together to foster a solid network of support within the four corners of the house. Also, parents should actively seek the advice of a licensed therapist, psychiatrist, or counselor to be more educated about digital self-harm and be guided on the proper ways to address it.

Remember, the journey towards healing and full recovery differs for each person.

That said, what are the most effective approaches on how to stop digital self-harm more effectively?

Below is a list of methods that families can adapt to prevent their loved ones from committing digital self-aggression.

Foster an Environment for Open Communication.

When helping family members and loved ones with depression, open communication is crucial. Parents must foster compassion and generate an uncritical atmosphere. Share stories with each other (life stories are the best), understand their strengths and weaknesses, talk about their daily struggles, and join them in exploring suitable and healthy ways to overcome their struggles.

You can try scheduling a family day to spend quality time with each other. Stronger family ties are among the driving forces that propel people living with a mental illness to take action and be more involved in self-healing.

Listen, Don’t Judge.

Next to fostering an open communication environment is practicing active listening. As a parent, you must show your child that you are all ears when they say or share something with you, whether it be a mundane detail about their day or a sensitive topic that affects them.

The LGBTQIA+ community is often at the receiving end of harsh judgment and criticism from society and even from their relatives. The lack of a safe environment for them to unveil their identity leads them to create distance from their family and friends and feel isolated in the process.

If you are a parent of an LGBTQIA+ youth, don’t berate them once they confess their true identity. Instead, listen with an open mind. DO NOT judge them.

Monitor Their Social Media Activities.

No, this does not mean you should stalk your children on social media. Rather, checking your child’s social media profiles every once in a while is more ideal. See what they are up to, who their friends are, what kind of trends they immerse themselves in, what piques their interests, and more importantly, take a look at the people (or accounts) posting on their profiles.

The method is a great way to track whether your child is being bullied on social media or not. Also, knowing the preferences and interests of your child enables you to adapt to their preferences, an instrumental factor for building more solid family ties.

Seek Professional Assistance

This is a rather “when necessary” kind of option, particularly if you feel that you need more guidance in the matter. There is no shame in asking for professional help. However, you must ask for full discretion from your child before doing so. Educate them about the benefits and wonders that professional help can do to them.

The Prevention Tools: How Digital Platforms Can Help Prevent Digital Self-Harm?

Digital self-harm can also be prevented by maximizing the efficiency of modern-day technologies. Indeed, since the behavior in question is executed in digital or online platforms, then the solution can also be generated within the same setting or environment.

Here are some of the most notable platforms that people can use to overcome their struggles and avoid the digital self-harm barricades.

Social Media Groups for Mental Health/Wellness

Joining social media groups based on your preference, along with those designed to shed light on psychological conditions and provide a support group for people with mental health conditions, is a great way to share your interests as well as express your emotions and struggles with people who may be sharing similar sentiments. Find one that encourages positive interactions and discourages hurtful and offensive remarks among members. In this manner, it will make you feel that you are not alone and you have genuine people to aid you in your battles.

Forums or Communities

Just like social media groups, forums allow you to express your feelings and emotions. Perhaps the main difference between forums and social networks is that, unlike social media, forums don’t have a follower system. In forums, you can think of a topic under a category and create a thread about the topic you’ve thought of. Take Reddit, people can post threads about a certain topic under a category (or subreddit in this case) such as pets, spooky stories, comic books, and anime, to name a few. Subreddits enable you to narrow your options and focus on those that are closely related to your preferences and hobbies. Consequently, it becomes easier to find people with common interests.

Moderation Toolso share similar interests.

Content Moderation Tools

Without proper content moderation, immersing yourself in any social or online interactive platform poses higher risks and stress. CEOs and heads of social networking apps, online forums, and interactive platforms all bear a responsibility to protect their users (especially the youth) from any content or activity that poses threats to one’s safety and well-being.

There are no exceptions to this unspoken rule.

The need to implement an efficient moderation system helps protect both the platforms and end-users from trolls, cyberbullies, and even hackers. Human moderators aid in overseeing effective countermeasures against any form of UGC that provokes people to engage in digital-self harm.

There are tons of outsourcing companies that offer remarkable moderation services. Moderation companies ensure that their human moderators are well-trained to assess various user posts and activities. They uphold a wholesome online community for all by taking down hate speech, offensive comments, graphic videos and images, and even trending challenges on social apps that secretly promote self-injury.

Stop Ignoring the Elephant in the Room

The unfortunate truth is that there are still people who remain oblivious or choose to ignore the reality that bullying and depression have become more prevalent in the digital world. They think that bullying is mere teasing and depression is nothing but a context made up in the minds of people. These naysayers tend to ignore facts, actual studies, and peer-reviewed journals and findings.

This is not the time to slack off and leave individuals with mental health issues alone.

Educate yourself. Take the time to learn about digital self-harm and what causes it. If you or someone you know engages in self-destructive behavior, then you must understand the possible consequences of addressing the issue immediately. Never let them feel that they are alone. Finally, get yourself acquainted with the different preventive measures to provide or acquire the necessary support.

Don’t be the reason why people feel even lonelier, lost, confused, or uncomfortable with themselves. Be the opposite. Lend an open ear, and let go of any form of judgment or stigma. If needed, seek professional advice. Lastly, maximize today’s innovations into a tool for battling cyberbullies, self-harming, and suicide.

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