The rise of the digital world has led to significant changes in the way humans communicate. Arguably no demographic has embraced the potential of electronic communication (e.g. SMS, email, social media) as wholeheartedly as adolescents.
While many young people engage in positive electronic interactions, malicious communication is present with much attention paid by the media, parents, politicians and others to the rise and impact of cyberbullying. Substantial research has been conducted into negative electronic communication perpetrated against others. However, Patchin and Hinduja’s (2017) recent publication focuses on anonymous malicious communication against one’s self defined as digital self-harm.
Self-harm has historically been used to describe physical acts of harm and affects up to 18% of adolescents during their lifetime. Despite anecdotes of digital self-harm, little evidence exists to shed light on its extent or associations. In their study, Patchin and Hinduja (2017) address this gap aiming to identify the prevalence of digital self-harm, its correlates and underlying reasons among a sample of American youth.
American adolescents aged 12-17 years were recruited via email to participate in the study. Following parent and adolescent consent, an electronic survey examining perceptions of, and experiences with, bullying, cyber-bullying, and related teen behaviours was completed.
Assessment of digital self-harm was done via two items:
- Item A: “In my lifetime, I have anonymously posted something online about myself that was mean”; and
- Item B “In my lifetime, I have anonymously cyberbullied myself”.
Additional demographic variables of age, sex, race and sexual orientation, as well as history of victimisation through bullying or cyberbullying, depressive symptoms, physical self-harm, drug use, and deviant behaviour (i.e. theft or physical attack) were collected.
A total of 5,593 adolescents participated in the study reflecting a 15% response rate.
- 347 (6.2%) adolescents reported anonymously posting negative comments about themselves
- 296 (5.3%) reported cyberbullying themselves
- A large proportion of respondents (Item A: 51.3%; Item B: 44.4%) reported only doing so once.
From the covariate analysis, controlled for age, sex and race, all variables examined elevated the risk of digital self-harm. Of the seven variables, the three greatest risk factors appear to be:
- Deviant behaviour (9 times more likely for item A, 13 times more likely for item B)
- Being cyberbullied by others (7.5 times more likely for item A, 12 times more likely for item B)
- Drug use (5 times more likely for item A, 6 times more likely for item B).
The remaining variables (i.e. non-heterosexual, school bullying victim, depressive symptoms and physical self-harm) were also found to significantly increase risk of anonymously posting negative comments (2.38 to 4.86 times) or cyberbullying (2.67 to 5.33 times).
Rationale for digital self-harm were provided by 46% (n=160) of those who responded positively to Item A. The most common reason given was self-hate followed by comedic value, inciting a reaction, feeling low (depressive symptoms) and attention.
Due to the strong association between physical self-harm and later suicide, more research is required in order to elucidate the relationship between digital self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide. Furthermore, the authors note that digital self-harm could be triggered by cyber and offline bullying, with some adolescents engaging with it for the purpose of reaching out to others for help. However, the deviant behaviour (e.g. history of theft or instigating a physical attack), which was found to be the greatest risk factor for digital self-harm, was not discussed. The researchers note that due to both the low response rate of 15%, the lack of being able to establish causation, and the possibility of misremembered events, findings should be interpreted with caution.
It is unclear from the paper why digital self-harm is solely defined as an anonymous activity. In fact, one of the two studies on digital self-harm referenced by the authors (Englander, 2013) suggests that these anonymous postings may only be lightly veiled. Hurtful comments about oneself can be detrimental whether shared anonymously or openly. As the authors state that digital self-harm is a relatively new phenomenon and area of scientific enquiry, the rationale for the selected definition as well as the method of measurement should be made clear within the paper. Despite the authors’ intent to uncover the prevalence of digital self-harm, they fail to reconcile the prevalence rates for the two items used to measure it. Without reader knowledge of the overlap of positive responses to both items, the actual prevalence rate in this sample remains unknown.
The authors attempted to better understand the underlying reasons for this behaviour through an open-ended question within the survey. They report the reasons given but these are presented alone, without any attempt to link these findings to characteristics for the participants (e.g. gender, drug use, experience of bullying) or the frequency of the behaviour). Failure to integrate both types of data limits our ability to better understand the phenomenon.
This study highlights the challenge in determining which adolescents are at risk of mental health problems, physical self-harm and suicide. Approximately half of those reporting digital self-harm had done so on a single occasion and it is uncertain how their correlates and reasons differed from those engaging in this behaviour on multiple occasions. Future research must be sensitive to these potential differences and their relationship to future negative outcomes.
Despite the limitations of the study, the authors have brought attention to an emerging problem and it is clear that effort should be taken to better understand the impact and outcomes of self-directed malicious online communication.
Patchin JW, Hinduja S. (2017) Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 61, Issue 6, 2017, Pages 761-766, ISSN 1054-139X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.06.012.
Englander E. (2013) Digital self-harm: Frequency, type, motivations, and outcomes (PDF). Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, 2013.