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Digital Self-harm: what parents need to know

selfharm-1-of-1Is 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.

Once again communication and a connection with our kids has to be worked at constantly. Being present in those teenage years even when you think they don’t want you to be.

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.

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This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Oh my, I have not heard of this before. It really is a scary role being a parent in this digital age. Thank you for sharing and starting this discussion

    1. Thanks Rhianna, hopefully something that wont be an issue for too many, but certainly worth being aware of.

  2. I must say I never thought of it but it seems plausible. Self-torturing thoughts are part of many teenager’s lives and obviously you can act out on it in many ways. It’s not what kills them indeed, it’s when no one cares or notices, like all other forms of self harm/cries for help…

    1. Absolutely, it is the not caring or noticing that matters. So important we stay connected to our kids as they go through these challenges.

  3. I have shared this article because it is really important. Time with teens and attention is what they need most. As parents we often let go as they get older rather than changing but being ever present. Such an awesome piece.

    1. Thanks so much Eleise, and thanks for sharing x

  4. Wow I had no idea. I feel there is so much to think about as my kids near high school age. Thanks for continuing to beg up topics like this.

    1. Thanks Deb, hopefully nothing you need to worry about but good to be aware and even talk to our kids so they can look out for friends and peers.

  5. I hadn’t heard of this either. We’ve got to keep close to these dear teens of ours… whilst all the time letting them feel as if we aren’t that close… I call into parenting from a distance… I’m there and ever-present, but not in their faces at all.

    1. Parenting from a distance is certainly great advice, particularly as our kids get older and they dont want us ‘hanging off them’!

  6. Being a Mum to four teens I’m amazed at how much has changed since I was a teen – back in the stone age, seriously, ask my kids! It’s hard to keep a grip on all the things they are doing IRL let alone social media.

    Sometimes I wish technology stopped when computers were still running on DOS. So much that is wrong with the world would be so wrong now.

    MC x
    #teamIBOT

    1. Oh the good old DOS system! There are certainly some good and bad aspects to the changes in technology so we need to keep up and keep connected to our kids as well as the technology!

  7. I’ve heard of this happening but i didn’t know the term. There is just so much to worry about with our teens. Great post.

    1. Thanks Roboman. Just another thing to be aware of but hopefully won’t even be an issue for most.

  8. The thought of how much of the world our kids are exposed to at such a young age terrifies me, my oldest daughter is 10 and already social media is becoming a part of her life. I’m trying to find some kind of balance between letting her learn and experience, and keeping her safe. #teamIBOT

    1. Finding that balance is certainly important…and always a work in progress!

  9. Well put! We have a bit of a learning curve ahead of us as we are not yet at the tween age with our eldest, but keeping up with our parental personal development, and general awareness is the key to it!

  10. Good, thought provoking post, Martine. I’d be interested to know how widespread self-harming online is. I have to admit it would never have occurred to me that anyone would do this to themselves. Research is would be worthwhile in how much, why, prevention. There’s a PhD in this for someone I think.

  11. Oh Martine life is going to be so much harder for our kid than us. Technology brings with it such a burden of responsibilities, a breakdown of boundaries that is hard and scary to fathom 🙁

  12. I have self harmed physically for 7 years. I’m 18 now and still cut. I have been to the hospital 3 times for attempted suicide.
    This is a lot of this is bullshit. I never once put out of the internet what I was going through, I was ashamed by it and never talked about it at all on the internet until I came to terms that I was a kid who was dependent on self harming. And even after that I used what I had been through to help others. Usually it’s not a ‘cry for attention’ its a cry for help, or a way to express yourself. On my tumblr I have millions of posts about suicide and self harm, not because I want ‘attention’ but because that is what attracts me and that is how I express how I am feeling.
    People don’t really understand what self harm is. For me when I cut I am not a crying or emotional mess, I am calm. I cut not because I love to feel pain but because I feel numb inside and I need to feel something to feel alive again. And when I have times where I can feel again all I feel is pain on the inside so when I cut on the outside it kinda numbs me again, also I sometimes cut when I stressed because I need control over something.
    If you have a kid who is self harming it isn’t going to help to say ‘don’t do that it isn’t right’ because we will just do it anyway. It’s an addiction. Unless you have been someone who has self harmed or goes through this, don’t spew your bullshit because none of this is legit.

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