Self cyber bullying: A new form of self harm?

Despite the growing influence of the internet in our daily lives it comes as a surprise that self harm now occurs through the use of social media according to recent findings. With cyber bullying being a worrying precursor to young people’s distress and even suicide, there has been an interesting twist where young people are now self cyber bullying as a method of self harm.

Teenagers in particular have been known to create anonymous accounts on social media sites and post self degrading messages to their own page as a means of self harming. Ellie 17 (not her real name) is an example of a teenager who took such actions. “The posts would say things like I was ugly, I was useless, I wasn't loved… all the stuff in my head. If I saw it in black and white coming from 'other people' I knew it must be true” said Ellie. Another form of self cyber bullying also included posting questions on sites to provoke a reaction and in turn welcome cruel answers from other users. Questions like “do you think I’m attractive?” resulted in the expected abuse! Self cyber bullying has also been seen as a masked cry for help according to MARC (Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre) where people post abuse in order to draw attention from adults and friends on the site to enlist support and perhaps sympathy. Statistics from MARC state that 23% of students self cyber bullied once a month, 28% one or two times a year and 49% infrequently exhibited this behaviour.

One of the most recent cases of cyber bullying occurred when 14 year old Hannah Smith from Leicestershire caused death by suicide after receiving a barrage of abuse on the question and answer site ask.fm, which allows users to post questions and answers anonymously. Users would taunt Smith about her weight, the death of her uncle and urged her to harm herself. The power of anonymity on such sites can be argued to escalate the problem of cyber bullying where users have the power to post disturbing messages whilst disguising their identity.

However new findings of the tragic case of Smith have shown worrying links to the emergence of self cyber bullying. It has been reported that 98% of the harmful messages were allegedly posted by Smith herself and only four of the abusive messages came from other IP addresses. We cannot make assumptions at this point about the reality of the situation as there are still many unknown details. That said, if this is a fact then what does this say about the power of self cyber bullying? What is driving so many young people to self harm in this way?

The power of the internet and social media is not new but is still hard for many to grasp the insidious manner in which it creeps into people’s lives with the possibility of anonymity, quick spread of information and overriding influence in young people’s lives (as well as adults too). The art of expressing negative feelings in unique ways is nothing new as proposed by freelance writer Nina Funnell. ‘Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst-ridden poetry and other forms of art.’ As such she argues that teenagers have always shared their pain to elicit an emotional response such as sympathy or empathy, from the public. The key difference is that the actions now take place online, and, to an extent, where help may not be as forthcoming. Perhaps rather than blaming the internet we must educate more children, teenagers and parents on the pros and cons of the internet and work with people to engender more self regulation and to manage their self hatred in healthier and safer ways. And with the rising problem of self cyber bullying this must be tackled soon, as ‘sometimes the cruellest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves’ as emphasised by Funnell.

Written by Jennifer McLeod - Step Up! International on February 19, 2014 16:53


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