Is Digital self-harm the new buzz affliction plaguing our youth? Is it a genuine cry for attention from our angst ridden teens? Or is it just another by-product of this ‘all airing’, ‘all public displaying’ generation of digital kids?
Last week it was revealed UK schoolgirl Hannah Smith took her life after a series of horrible and heart wrenching cyber bully attacks on popular question and answer site Ask.Fm. Just as disturbingly, it was later revealed that these taunts and threats for Hannah to kill herself, these nasty and reprehensible comments, were actually found to have come from Hannahs very own fingertips. Yes, kids have been found to be anonymously writing mean and degrading questions to themselves and then publicly answering them.
Why would someone do this?
Kids have always struggled to deal with the social, emotional and hormonal changes that come with the onset of puberty and adolescence. To help deal with the questions, torment, uncertainty and the quest to find their place in the world, kids in the past would keep journals, paint, write clichéd angst laden poetry and melancholy songs. Today however, they are putting this angst out on show for the world to see. Possibly seeking compassion, support and empathy, but getting instead, the added torment of attack and ridicule.
This is a not particularly new phenomenon. Danah Boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft, wrote about this back in 2010 when it was discovered on the original question and answer site Formspring. Back then, Boyd gave 3 reasons why she believed kids may choose to engage in digital self-harm:
“1. It’s a cry for help. Teens want their parents (and perhaps others in their lives) to notice them and pay attention to them, support them and validate them. They want these people to work diligently to stop the unstoppable but, more importantly, to spend time focused on helping them.
2. They want to look cool. In some schools, getting criticized is a sign of popularity. Simply put, you have to be cool to garner hate/jealousy/etc. By posting and responding to negative anonymous questions, it’s possible to look important by appearing to be cool enough to be attacked.
3. They’re trying to trigger compliments. When teens are anonymously attacked, their friends often jump in to say nice things in response to the negative commentary. Thus, a desirable side effect of attacks is a stream of positive support, compliments, and other loving messages.” Danah Boyd
Unfortunately the desired outcome is rarely achieved.
But traditionally, self harm is done privately. It is seen as a way to control a part of you, namely your body, the very thing that is causing pain to begin with. It is not always shared with others, in fact it is often kept very private.
Maybe this is another example of kids thinking they are being private online, but doing so in the most public of spaces?
Or could digital self-harm be a defence mechanism? In other words if people are going to say bad things about me, I would prefer to get in first and at least have control over what is said. You get to be both victim and aggressor, therefore retaining some power and control. Until of course it all gets out of control.
For some kids I imagine it is possibly just a sense of needing to make your life more moody and ‘interesting’, and yes therefore attracting more attention.
Obviously this is an extremely serious issue for many, especially when it results in them taking their life. But how do we differentiate between those at serious risk and those just wanting to create a bit of ‘drama’? Or is the very reason they need to create drama a cry for help as well?
What can we do?
I think it is important that we don’t just focus on the symptoms but look deeper. We don’t just block them from a site or take away their phone and hope that the problem will go away. For many the online world is still a form of connection and to take it away can be just as detrimental.
We need to keep learning about what is out there ad the sorts of things our kids are doing online. Asking our own kids why they think people put this stuff online. Asking them to look out for their mates and others who they see with this sort of dialogue online.
When someone is bullied by a peer, a stranger of even themselves, it is important they get support, love and validation. It all comes back to healthy attention.
We need to be always looking for the signs both online and in real life. You are never going to keep up with everything they write, every status update they make and every photo they post online, but we need to be in tune with what’s going on in all aspects of their world.
Self harm of any form is a serious and complex issue. There is no one reason, cause or cure. Each case must be looked at individually.
Whether it is a serious cry for help, or a search for ‘excitement’ and drama, most parents would agree, that their must certainly be better ways to deal with the challenges of adolescence, than putting their reputation and even their lives at risk, with these public displays of self harm and degradation.