Cyber self-harm is when a person creates a false online identity with the chief goal of belittling and ridiculing themselves. This phenomenon is increasing. It is commonly assumed that a stranger is responsible for online abuse and threats; however, some people do it to themselves. Cyber abuse is an occurrence that is pretty common among teens today, but what could prompt adolescents to go online and deliberately aim insults at themselves? The phenomenon of cyber self-harm has many psychologists baffled. “I don’t think it dawned on anyone that teens would leverage anonymity this way,” Dr Danah Boyd, an expert on youth culture and technology, told BBC.

Cyber Self-Harm Statistics

After interviewing a number of students, results showed that 9% were partakers in self-bashing, with the majority being boys. 23% did it at least once a month; 28% twice a year and 49% tried it only once or very rarely. When asked why they chose to belittle themselves online, the response was that they “wanted help,” “to get attention,” or to get other people to defend them online.

Ironically, this self-battering attitude, and the globally public scale it is performed with, is in direct contrast with the more familiar way that teens have used to deal with their inferiority complexes over the years. Those who took the trouble to create fictitious identities did so to display an alter ego, a cyber-fantasy world where they could become whomever they wanted and not how they truly viewed themselves. This reverse effect of showcasing low self-esteem is just emerging and hides a deeper, darker emotional problem.

When someone goes through a rough emotional experience, they self-harm. The physical pain distracts them from the physical pain. Cyber self-harm is similar in that it allows the teenager to replace one form of emotional pain with another.  One study states that “this negative emotional reinforcement is extremely worrying.”

Technology Is Not to Blame for Cyber Self-Harm

As with most situations and issues that people do not understand, many parents choose to throw the blame of digital self-abuse on technology. Since technology is just one facet of a host of social and psychological problems that teens are facing, pinpointing technology as the culprit is not always helpful. There are more ramifications as to why this social malady occurs than meets the eye. Discovering the basis of this problem is the only way to stop what is happening.

Even though all the reasons behind digital self-bashing are not clear to us, the most important step to take is to answer the ‘call’ for help by the victim when we see the signs. By blaming the Internet, parents are inadvertently shifting their responsibility and closing their eyes to what is wrong with their children. Allowing for the fact that we acknowledge this as a real problem, where do we go from here?

Why Victims of Cyber Self-Harm Hide

More and more psychiatrists are noticing cyber self-harm, especially among teenagers and young adults. This phenomenon is perhaps a modern form of expressing anxiety and distress. In any case, it should raise a red flag to friends and family members that something may be wrong and that the individual should be given enough attention. When someone posts their negative emotions about themselves online, they have an audience, which gives them the attention they are seeking. It has been reported that cyber self-harm is an open cry for help. Reasons for anonymity in the message are manifold.

– Teens are mortified at the thought of being found out.

– Some adolescents are unable to adequately express themselves.

– Many teens don’t know how to talk to their parents.

– Children may feel lonely, depressed, or misunderstood.

– They do not want to seem weird or ‘uncool’ to their friends.

– They avoid talking about their feelings because they don’t want to be branded as childish or immature.

– Some children and teenagers suffer abuse but are too afraid or ashamed to tell anyone.

This last reason is the most damaging because, in severe cases, it can lead to suicide. Very often, these teens are suffering from some form of abuse but are afraid to expose or reveal the identity of their abuser, because it may be someone close to them or to their families. Self-bashing is a display of what they are experiencing at the hands of a person no one would suspect. It is like the little girl who has a doll and verbally abuses it, beats it, and dismembers it as a ‘release’; this may be considered an emotional outlet for getting back at the person(s) who hurt them. Digital self-harm is simply a more sophisticated and open way to make the victim’s voice heard, an alternative to physical self-harm.

Cyber Self-Harm Stories

The following stories show why certain teenagers resort to cyber self-harm. After being denied certain privileges by adults who abused their power and influence over him, Jason felt that they were correct and justified their negative attitude towards him. “I believe they’re right about me; I’m just not up to par. I’m not worth the effort,” he says. Despite being popular on Facebook and in school, this young man chose to believe he was worthless.

Another girl, who chose to keep her name anonymous, told that she was 15 when she started cyber-bullying herself. She created several online profiles and used several names to send abusive messages to herself. She would accuse herself of being ugly, useless, and unloved by anyone. To keep her story believable, she started sending abusive messages from her fake accounts to any of her friends that defended her.

There is also another type of cyber self-harm where people post personal questions online when they are fully aware of the fact that they will get negative responses. They ask things like “Am I attractive?” When they receive negative replies, their negative image of themselves is reinforced even further. “It persuaded me I was as bad as I thought, I wasn’t imagining it,” says a 16-year-old who has been through the same problem.

Signs of Cyber Self-Harm

While it may seem unrelated, the pseudonym that teens use to create social media profiles and email addresses can be a link to the cause of self-abusive habits. Many names have harmful meanings and parents should never assume that their child is too young or naïve to understand the importance of something like this. It is as bad as using a negative nickname like ‘killer’ or a child using an expletive as an online handle. Parents must also watch out for telltale signs such as a difference in attitude, physical appearance, or dressing. Children wearing T-shirts, hats, etc., or carrying memo pads and other items with self-bashing logos should not be ignored.

Although cyber self-harm may not leave visible scars on a person’s body, it poses a real emotional danger to adolescents, especially those who have self-esteem issues.  If you suspect or discover that your child, or someone else’s, is indulging in cyber self-harm, do not hesitate to get to the bottom of it. Explain to your child that, no matter how hard or impossible the issues that they face may seem to resolve, they are not alone.

What is cyber safety? Read this article and find out.