self harm can be digital too
The virtual world is increasingly the place self-harmers go to hurt themselves.
On school nights, Louis would hide under his duvet so he could play on his laptop into the early hours without his Mum and Dad telling him to sleep. He would click onto the YouTube account of a 16-year-old trans teenager and post reams of abuse. “You’re the most useless waste of space,” he commented under a video of the boy showing off his Christmas presents. “You’re not deserving of a place in society, freak, freak, FREAK,” he posted under a video on how to contour cheeks. “I would rather disembowel my stomach than watch this video any longer,” he wrote under a video showing a day out slurping smoothies and shopping for shoes at Manchester’s Trafford Centre. Eyes aching from the acidic blue haze of the laptop screen, he would type until his brain went fuzzy and there wasn’t anything nasty left to say.
This isn’t easy to read. But it becomes even more upsetting when you find out these messages were sent by Louis to his own social media accounts. He was engaging in what experts call “digital self-harm” -- the act of secretly sending yourself abusive messages online.
The devastating impact of cyber-bullying is widely acknowledged. In fact, a 2016 study revealed the number of young people seeking counselling for online bullying had increased by 88% in just five years. Yet little is known about the act of self-cyberbullying. In only the second study of its kind, US research from 2017 found that approximately 6% of students aged 12 to 17 had sent themselves anonymous hate mails, and according to clinical psychologists it’s a growing issue.
Given the amount of time we now spend online, perhaps it’s logical that the virtual world is increasingly the place self-harmers go to hurt themselves. But why do they do it? What drives a young person to post messages on their own social media profiles calling themselves “fat”, “useless” or even more sinister, “you’re pathetic and don’t deserve to be alive”? I spoke to one of the authors of the 2017 study, Dr. Sameer Hinduja, Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre and Professor of Criminology at Florida Atlantic University. He pointed to a number of reasons for digital self-harm. “Some teenagers said they did it to be funny or because they wanted attention. Others would say: ‘I wanted to test if someone was really my friend’, meaning they wanted to see how, or if, they would respond sympathetically. A significant group reported issues with low self-esteem or self-hatred: “I did it because I already felt bad and just wanted myself to feel worse.”
Ellie was 16 when she posted mean messages from a fake account onto her Snapchat. For her, it was about seeing how friends would respond. “I felt lonely”, explained the Liverpudlian over Reddit, “no one was bothered about me at school. It was like I was walking cling film and everyone could see through me. This girl I used to hang out with started avoiding me and sitting with other people during lessons. I sent the mean comments because I wanted people to tell me they loved me, needed me.”
Ellie explained to me the sort of messages she sent to herself: “I said that my boyfriend didn’t care about me and just wanted my body, I said that my friends only put up with me because I’m easy to talk to and I told myself that I was just a stupid person. I took screen shots of the conversation and put it on my story. Some people were like ‘oh that’s unfortunate, good luck with that’ but most ignored it.”
We exist under an economy of attention: the louder, more audacious and confrontational you are and the more parts of yourself you scoop out and plaster onto the internet, the more you succeed, gaining likes, power, and affirmation.
For Louis, digital self-harm was less about testing friends and more a vicious outpouring of self-hatred. “I wasn’t in a good place. I wanted to bash my stupid head through the mirror. Digital self-harm is easier than hurting yourself physically -- you don’t have to worry about hiding the scars. When you’re calling yourself worthless and ugly, it hurts, but it also feels like you’re getting everything out your system.”
“I just wanted to create drama for attention” said Natasha, 17, from Sheffield, who sent abusive messages to herself on Instagram. “Being called a slut or fat or whatever, it made me feel seen. It sounds weird but celebrities and popular people are always the ones who receive hate. That’s when you know you’re cool, when people can be arsed telling you to die”. She continued in a shrugging, sarcastic tone. “I wrote an open letter about how the troll’s comments made me feel. Everyone in my class was really supportive, calling me ‘brave’ and thanking me for having the courage to talk about my anxiety so frankly”.
As Natasha suggests, with the rise of trolling, doxxing and cyberbullying, it is bizarrely those who are most valued in society that are often the ones suffering from the most online hate. When people messaged Rihanna calling her fat she came back with a “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” style Gucci Mane meme and P!nk wrote a heartfelt iPhone note when bodyshamers made fun of her appearance. Those that respond publicly to criticism are praised as powerful and applauded with emoji claps. We exist under an economy of attention: the louder, more audacious and confrontational you are and the more parts of yourself you scoop out and plaster onto the internet, the more you succeed, gaining likes, power, and affirmation. Is it surprising some kids feeling forgotten and invisible want to foster the illusion of having “haters”?
‘Positive’ results like Natasha’s are common with digital self-harm. A 2012 study found that around 35% of those who self-cyberbullied found the strategy “successful”, in that “it helped them achieve what they wanted to achieve, and they felt better because of it".
But for digital self-harmers who do not receive the love and validation they desire, sending abuse to their own social media accounts provides little comfort. “When no one said anything really to defend me, it hurt” said Ellie, “I felt even more irrelevant. I thought it meant if I fizzled up and disappeared, no one would care.” Louis told me something similar: “Looking at it made me feel satisfied that I got it all out, a bit like throwing up when you are sick. But then when I'd look a bit later it'd make me feel worthless because I still believed all those things to be true”.
Whilst digital self-harm might appear less severe than its physical alternative, it often translates into IRL pain. Sameer’s survey of over 5,500 American students found that those who reported being depressed were five times more likely to be involved in digital self-harm, while those who said they had engaged in physical self-harm were nearly three times more likely to self-cyberbully.
This was the case for Louis. He would log onto one of the four fake accounts he created for self-cyberbullying and send messages in between his parents' laptop and Blackberry phone. One side would be encouraging himself to physically harm his body, “lmk if u need a knife”, and the other side would respond, naïve and placid, “sure hmu”. He showed me a stream of messages, the destructive part of his mind persuading and cajoling the other part into harm, “nah u get big. It can go deeper”, working to gain its trust, “u know I still care about u right” only to drag it down deeper into suicidal thoughts.
What fades more easily – a bleeding cut or a digital code? It’s difficult to tell.
Louis hasn’t self-harmed in two years and his mental health has been improving, but, for other teenagers digital self-harm has ended in tragic consequences. Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire hung herself in her bedroom in 2013. Her father believed she was being cyberbullied after finding cruel messages sent to her Ask.fm. But, when a police inquest found that the messages were sent from an IP address located inside her own home, it became clear Hannah was sending the hate mail to herself.
A similar case occurred in 2016 when 15-year-old Texan teenager Natalie Natividad committed suicide using a pill overdose. Again, it appeared she was a victim of cyberbullying when messages calling her “ugly” and telling her to “kill herself” were found on an app called After School. The bullying was thought to be so severe, at one point her mother pulled her out of school for protection and her brother claimed Natalie had cried to the school’s counsellor about how she was being attacked by other pupils. But, again, an online investigation concluded Natalie had sent the messages to herself.
Another reason why teenagers digitally self-harm is because it is often conceived of by victims as more transient than physical self-abuse. “I still have deep scars. You can delete it if it's online, but not if it's on your body” Louis told me. But are internet messages really forgettable? Or is the ephemerality of online activity an illusion?
The recent news trend for digging up celebrities’ pre-fame problematic tweets illustrates that what we say or do online, even if it was written 10 years ago, is always there, etched into the swirling vortex of internet codes. And even when our physical bodies die and we are buried deep down in the ground, often our Facebook profiles remain: grinning, glittered at festivals, supporting the crinkled red face of your new baby cousin, handing in dissertations puffy-eyed. Though friends and family can terminate your Facebook after your death, it is a complicated process involving contacting company representatives, so often profiles remain live forever. R.I.P tributes smattered over the deceased’s wall like a virtual gravestone. What fades more easily – a bleeding cut or a digital code? It’s difficult to tell.
Louis stopped digitally self-harming when he found friends he could speak to: “I have people who love me, laugh at all my bad jokes. I can talk about everything with them. I’m less lonely.” But more official mechanisms of support need to be developed. Sameer’s fellow researcher Dr. Justin Patchin is looking to work with social media websites and apps to identify vulnerable digital self-harmers. Asking them to check if messages are sent from the same IP address – meaning they most likely come from a person to themselves – so they can contact the user with information on counselors.
Until then, Dr. Marc Bush, Director of Policy and Evidence of Young Minds urges: “If you’ve been feeling down or started feeling like you want to harm or punish yourself, it’s important to reach out to someone you trust. It could be a friend, a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a counsellor or a helpline. You aren’t alone, and you don’t need to suffer in silence.”
Louis faltered later on in our conversation, “looking through these messages now, I was in such a dark place, I thought I was disgusting. It’s weird thinking these messages are still here, floating around.” From the other side of our pixelated Skype call he gestured at the laptop in front of him not really knowing where to put his hand because you can’t touch the internet. You definitely can feel it though.