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Why Would Someone Cyber Self-Harm?


As we see the problem of cyber self-harm growing, it has started to get the attention of academics and researchers who are interested to find out more about the psychology behind digital self-harm. Danah Boyd, Principal Researcher at Microsoft has shared her thoughts on the seriousness of the problem:

“It’s really important to highlight that digital self-harm is probably not the explanation behind the majority of negative anonymous comments out there, but the fact that it exists at all should be a warning to us all – and especially to parents who are trying to address bullying in their households.”

Danah Boyd, Microsoft

Boyd has looked into this “self-trolling” behavior and identified three key reasons why a teenager might want to self-harm online.

  • A cry for help – young people may act in this way to gain attention from parents and friends when they feel emotionally vulnerable.
  • Looking cool – some teens may try to influence their social status as someone who is popular enough to gain negative comments from jealous ‘haters’.
  • Triggering compliments – low self-esteem or worries about themselves may lead a young person to insult themselves anonymously in order to illicit their friends to ‘jump in to say nice things in response to the negative commentary.’

Others agree with the assessment that teenagers in particular might seek to provoke positive comments through abusive ones. Dr Emma Short, co-director at the Centre for Cyberstalking Research has been vocal about self-abuse that she has experienced on social media platform Tumblr.

“I was astonished the first time I typed the word ‘hate’ into Tumblr, I expected to see a lot of hateful comments about other people. Actually the vast majority was users saying they hated themselves. And it’s a way of perhaps seeking approval for those feelings. Research has shown that if someone posts a nasty comment online, around 30% of people will join in with the bullying, but about 60% of people will then attack the troll, and defend the person the nasty comment is about. That is what a lot of these teens may be seeking.”

Dr Emma Short, Co-Director, Centre for Cyberstalking Research

Various studies have indicated that girls and boys digitally self-harm for different reasons. When asked why they engaged in cyber self-harm, boys were more likely to put their behavior down to a prank or that they were doing it to ‘get attention’ while girls were more likely to attribute the behavior to a problem with depression.