The world we live in is rapidly changing due to the digital revolution, but human beings are not changing so fast, and what seems clear is that we are taking the same patterns (healthy and destructive) from the non-digital world and adapting them to the online sphere.

Over the past year, I have asked a lot of people in the education and community development fields if they have ever heard of the term (or concept) of online self-harming. I have yet to meet one single person who has said yes.

This is very worrying indeed.

Everyone knows about self-harming, everyone knows about cyber-bullying, but no one seems to be even aware of online self-harming. As an indicator of this, in the wikipedia entry on self-harm it doesn’t even get mentioned.

I came across the concept from an excellent blog by ever insightful Dana Boyd (@zephoria) which is the only reference I have ever seen to it, anywhere.

For the sake of clarity this is how I would define it:

‘Online self-harming is the writing and public posting of mean, hurtful, shameful or abusive messages or other content (eg video) about yourself; or deliberately damaging your own online identity.’

To the outside this would likely appear as cyber-bullying and actions would be taken accordingly. But bullying is different to self-harming and I am wondering how many young people are not being given the support they need because of the miss-identification of what is actually going on.

So why would someone do this? Dana Boyd puts forward 3 possible factors, though there will likely be others:

  • A cry for help / attempt to be noticed
  • To look cool / be important – while this is a bit counter intuitive, Dana asserts that in some schools you have “to be cool to garner hate/jealousy”
  • To trigger compliments – negative comments online can cause friends to jump in with positive responses and reassurance

I would add in a further thought:

  • To gain some power and control – this is also perhaps counter-intuitive, but a dynamic of self-harm is that the person is both the victim and the perpetrator. If you are “doing” the bullying you get a sense of control over something that otherwise you have no control of.

It is very hard to estimate the number of people who self harm (physically), but it is thought that perhaps as many as 10% of young people may try and hurt themselves at some point. Given that the outward signs of physical self-harming are actually observable, how much harder will it be to assess the amount of online self-harming that is taking place?

What is absolutely certain is that online self-harming is happening, it is likely that it is pretty widespread, and we can only assume that the incidence of it will only increase in the future.

My guess is that much of what we already know about physical self-harming will also apply to online self-harming, but I would caution against assuming it is exactly the same phenomenon in a different sphere.

So what to do?

1.    Research – we urgently need lots of research on this issue, which would include major consultation with young people and professionals, as well as development of indicators, treatment and support approaches etc. We need to know what we are dealing with, how to spot it, and what approaches will work to counter it.

2.    Increase understanding – it is essential that understanding of online self-harming becomes universal in the education, health and community sector, as well as of course amongst young people and parents. This would include development of all types of materials and resources.

3.    Support for online self-harmers – self-harming of any type is always an indicator of an underlying issue/s. The earlier and more effectively this can be spotted and addressed the better for everyone.

I hope that this short blog can stimulate a debate here in the UK on this issue and play a role in highlighting this very important and concerning issue.