Digital Self-Harm May be on the Rise with Hybrid and Remote Learning

October was National Bullying Prevention Month which shined a spotlight on cyberbullying, but another troubling online behavior, digital self-harm, could be on the rise during the shift to hybrid and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is possible that the prevalence of digital self-harm might be on the increase, especially when you consider the emotional toll that COVID has taken on everyone, including K-12 students and their isolation from friends, and how that might manifest in mental health issues and behavior like digital self-harm," says Ryan Meldrum, director of research and communications in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida International University.

Meldrum was one of the lead researchers on a study that analyzed the 2019 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey that polled 10,000 middle school and high school students and found that 10 percent of participants had engaged in digital self-harm in the past 12 months, with 6 percent engaging in the behavior in the past 30 days.

According to Education Week, Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, believes educators should know more about digital self-harm so they can be on alert for it and perhaps even help contribute to broader understanding of how it works and how it might be prevented.

What is Digital Self-Harm

Many educators and parents may not even be familiar with digital self-harm, which TechTarget describes digital self-harm as: “targeting oneself with negative content online. The purpose may be to cause oneself psychological distress or to communicate psychological distress indirectly. Digital self-harm can include any way of intentionally seeking out hurtful content about oneself -- such as creating negative content about yourself or posting abusive comments on your own content -- either anonymously or from a false account created for that purpose, known as a ghost account. The latter example is sometimes referred to as self-trolling.”

Digital self-harm is relatively common among middle and high school students. A 2017 research study documented in Journal of Adolescent Health explored the experiences of 5,500 students between the ages of 12 and 17. Among the survey's findings were the following:

  • About 35 percent had practiced digital self-harm at least a few times.
  • Thirteen percent said they had done so many times.
  • Victims of actual cyberbullying were more likely to self-troll.
  • Boys were more likely to self-troll than girls.
  • Boys more often said that they self-trolled "as a joke or to get attention," while girls more often said the behavior was "a way to cope with depression and psychological pain."
  • The behaviors correlated to behavioral problems, physical self-harm, substance abuse and symptoms of depression.

“Do kids get depressed, and then they post negative things online, or physically hurt themselves? Is it part of a constellation of things that happen at roughly the same time? There’s definitely a lot we still don’t know about those behaviors,” Patchin, who has been involved in both of digital self-harm studies, told Education Week.

How to Prevent and Respond to Digital Self-Harm

Like cyberbullying, parents and educators are often unaware of digital self-harm and other negative online behaviors.

“It is hard for a teacher or a parent to get to the bottom of this. From the standpoint of their role whether as an educator or a parent, if they learn about a child being cyberbullied, they need to investigate,” Patchin told Education Week.

Parents and educators need to report any cyberbullying to the apps involved and talk with the kids mentioned.
Patchin says that if it is particularly bad, egregious, if there are threats of physical harm, it will be flagged by these apps, but the apps may not notify parents or schools, even if they notify law enforcement.

Of course, it does not matter if the cyberbullying is coming from external forces or coming internally, it needs to be addressed and help has to be offered to the victim.

“You need to provide resources to who’s experiencing it. Whether you’re doing it to yourself or someone else is doing it to you, our goal should be to help you. That might be very practical things like showing you how to block a person from your account, collect evidence, report it to the apps. But maybe it is a cry for help, or you do need counseling or other assistance,” Patchin said.

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