A surprising number of teenagers are engaging in 'digital self-harm,' the practice of being mean to yourself online

  • A new study found 6% of US teens anonymously post or share mean things about themselves online.
  • The act is called “digital self-harm,” and its rates mirror those of traditional self-harm, such as cutting.
  • Experts have found teens digital self-harm in an effort to validate their insecurities in a public space.

In past decades, teenagers struggling to deal with their emotions might have coped by taking a razor blade to their forearm or extinguishing cigarettes on their skin.

Today’s teens, products of the internet era, have found an additional outlet.

Approximately 6% of adolescents between 12 and 17 years old engage in a practice known as “digital self-harm,” or the posting or sharing of demeaning information about oneself anonymously online, a new study finds.

“I was surprised that the numbers were as high as they were,” Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire and the study’s lead author, told Business Insider.

A growing body of evidence has found smartphones to be a driving force in declining mental health among teenagers. Teen suicide rates recently eclipsed homicide rates, and some psychologists claim it’s largely due to the loneliness and anxiety produced by digital technology.

“I don’t think it dawned on anyone that teens would leverage anonymity in this way,” Dr. Danah Boyd, digital self-harm researcher and author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” told the BBC. “It tends to startle anyone I tell about it.”

Researchers like Boyd (who was not involved in the latest study) have found that digital self-harm offers teens a chance to safely get attention from friends and publicize the negative feelings they have been keeping in their heads. The act can serve as a kind of purge — expunging bad self-impressions, either about appearance or personality, can validate a young person’s insecurities.

“The ubiquity of social media and the way in which youth present and represent themselves in order to obtain attention, validation, and feedback from an audience,” the authors wrote, “may enhance the likelihood they choose online spaces as the preferred venue through which they can affect and reach others.”

A 15-year-old named Ellie (not her real name) told the BBC a similar story in 2013.

“The posts would say I was ugly, I was useless, I wasn’t loved … all the stuff in my head,” Ellie said. “If I saw it in black and white coming from ‘other people’ I knew it must be true.”

The latest study is the largest to offer a picture of digital self-harm’s prevalence in the US. A representative sample of 5,593 middle and high school students were surveyed about their online behaviour, with 7.1% of males and 5.3% of females saying they cyberbullied themselves.

A prior survey, issued in 2013 by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, found roughly 9% of teens engaged in the practice.

These rates mirror those of traditional forms of self-harm, known more formally as “nonsuicidal self-injury,” or NSSI. A study published in 2012 determined 8% of the 665 youths who were surveyed said they engaged in a form of NSSI, be it cutting, burning, or hitting. The survey found a wider variation among genders, however, than the latest study on digital self-harm: While 19% of ninth-grade girls reported some form, only 5% of ninth-grade boys did.

Researchers behind the new study found those who engaged in traditional self-harm were three times as likely to digitally self-harm.

The team also conceded it couldn’t parse out every specific reason for digital self-harm. It could be the case that some portion of teens self-cyberbully because they enjoy a “misguided pleasure in deceiving others,” the coauthors wrote.

The research team advocated even more support from celebrities and activists, who have started campaigns to fight self-harm, such as To Write Love on Her Arms and the It Gets Better project.

“We believe these efforts should be redoubled by other far-reaching entities,” the coauthors wrote, “especially given the powerful and unparalleled influence that digital content and communications have on this population.”

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