What is Cyber Self-Harm?

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Sep 10, 2019

What is Cyber Self-Harm?

Nasty messages, vicious comments – we’ve all seen or heard about online trolling, but what would cause someone to send such hurtful comments to themselves?

Being a teenager is tough. This is often when mental health conditions first appear, questions of identity, and ‘where do I fit in?’ hang heavy in the air. This was something I certainly wrestled with as a teenager. It was also the time I started self-harming.

Self-harm is when a person intentionally causes themselves harm, usually through cutting, burning, or putting themselves in dangerous situations.

Those who self-harm often use it as a coping mechanism to help them deal with difficult emotions. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that, according to the Mental Health Foundation, the majority of people affected by self-harm are aged 11–25. Something I didn’t have to contend with at school, however, was social media.

Times have changed, and so has the mental health landscape. The realm of self-harm has now expanded and gone digital.

What is cyber self-harm?

smartphone with social media apps on screen

Cyber self-harm is when someone uses an anonymous social media platform to send themselves abusive comments or messages. While cyber self-harm is not as well understood as cyber-bullying and harassment, it’s thought to be a growing problem.

A US survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2017 sampled students between the ages of 12 and 17, and found 6% had sent themselves anonymous abuse online. Looking at the gender split, they found males were more likely to cyber self-harm (7.1% compared with 5.3% females).

If someone is cyber self-harming, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are harming themselves physically. However, this can act as a catalyst. Cyber self-harming can become a habit, just like physical self-harming. It may lead to conditions like depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

Why do people cyber self-harm?

To get a better understanding of why people do this, I spoke with psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member, Simon Mathias. Simon has worked with teenagers who have cyber self-harmed and says, in his experience, there are three main reasons why they do this: to get attention, for social compatibility, and to receive positive remarks.

The attention-seeking reason may appear controversial. In the self-harm community, the misconception that it is attention-seeking is fiercely refuted. This is where cyber self-harm differs. Those who engage in it often want others to notice.

“They see others being supported when they report trolling. This is then endorsed by the reactions of the media when celebrities report incidents. They tend to want to have attention paid to them by friends, peers, or teachers, rather than by parents,” Simon explains.

Times have changed, and so has the mental health landscape. The realm of self-harm has now gone digital

Social compatibility is often the reason when the cyber self-harm activity results in being accepted or liked by others, and the desire for positive remarks can go deeper than simply wanting attention. “This is where the child wants specific and direct positive comments, on aspects such as their physical appearance, what they have done etc. It may be directed to get a response from parents or family, but most certainly friends, and usually to counter the specific trolling comments.”

What can parents do to help?

The nature of cyber self-harm can make it difficult to spot. Ensuring communication between you and your child is open and honest can help them feel more able to come to you for support. Regular conversations about social media and negative comments will also show that this is a topic they can come to you about.

If you discover that your child is self-harming in this way, it may be tempting to ban social media and take away their devices, but this is rarely helpful. Instead, it’s important to talk about what’s happening, without any judgement.

“Once a child or teenager has come for help it’s important to build a confidential, safe and trusting relationship. It’s best to take the time to listen to their story and allow them to open up.”

teenage girl sitting on sofa using laptop

Helping your child identify their strengths, and finding the words they need to express their emotions, is key too. It also helps to focus on the underlying reasons behind the cyber self-harming, rather than the behaviour itself. Finally, Simon says when your child feels ready, you can suggest visiting a counsellor.

“Today, most counsellors and psychotherapists like myself use a variety of approaches. It isn’t all about talking. I have games, outdoor activities, and a dog, that help my clients work through their thoughts and emotions.”

Support from friends, parents and counsellors can be essential in helping teenagers make sense of their feelings, and to find healthier ways to get what they need.

You can find a professional, qualified counsellor by using the search bar below or visiting Counselling Directory.

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