The anonymous Facebook post read, “Go ahead and kill yourself,” and “You are nothing but a pathetic person!” Surprisingly, the posts were written by the teen who was the target. He was engaging in what is now being called, digital self-harm and cyberbullying himself. His posts contained a handful of messages that were threats and evidenced hate towards himself. The posts got everyone’s attention.
We first noticed this type of behavior when a 14-year-old English teen sent herself digital messages of self-harm weeks before she committed suicide in 2013. And a Texas teen did something similar by posting messages of being ugly and needing to kill herself. Sadly, her life, too, ended in suicide.
What we are seeing is a form of self-harm or what has been called self-injury. Only now it is beginning to occur on digital platforms. A study among middle and high school students found that about 6% of teens are engaging in this behavior. In the study, boys admitted to doing this more than girls. However, most often we hear of girls engaging in self-harm. And the study found a relationship between self-harm and sexual orientation, being bullied at school or on-line, drug use or engaging in deviant behavior, having depressive thoughts and engaging in off-line self-harm. So consider those possible risk factors.
Why would a teen use a digital account to publicly send harmful messages to himself? When students in the study were asked, several themes emerged.
- This was a cry for help. Like all self-injury, it represents internal pain
- They wanted attention or did it to be funny
- They wanted a reaction from their friends or to see how their friends would respond
- Low self-esteem or self-hate
Bottom line for any parent: Consider the possibility that a cyberbullying message could be sent from your own teen. Your teen could be engaging in digital self-harm. Even if this isn’t the case, the cyberbullying messages are of great concern and need to be explored. Parents, teachers and others working with teens need to be alerted to this new type of on-line behavior.
Self injury is a predictor of suicide so it has to be taken seriously. If you know a teen engaged in off-line self-harm such as cutting, skin picking, pulling hair, burning or carving their skin, tell them you love them and get them professional help. The behavior is symptomatic of pain, coping problems or a way to punish themselves. They y need help to cope differently and deal with whatever is causing emotional pain.