How common is ‘digital self-harm’ and what explains it?

Cyber bullying is one of the nastier aspects of digital culture. Children are cruel enough to one another in the playground, but granted the veil of online anonymity, the bullies can abuse their victims with impunity.

Admittedly, the online behaviour of adults – up to and including the President of the United States – is hardly providing a good example; but there are many reasons why we should be especially concerned about the cyber bullying of children by other children.

The social media aren’t just social in that they facilitate communication, they also mediate – indeed, orchestrate – those other basic features of society, status and hierarchy. Some of these mechanisms are pitilessly quantitative – friending/unfriending, following/unfollowing, upvotes/downvotes and all the rest of it. However, the ability to post comments and images, provides a qualitative stream of feedback too, one exploited by anonymous cyber bullies to give in-depth expression to their sadism.

Except that in some cases the online abuse isn’t sadistic, it’s masochistic. In many cases of online bullying, the abusive messages are posted anonymously by the victim.

Just how common is this ‘digital self harm‘? Writing for First Things, Aaron Kheriaty reviews the evidence that we have so far:

“In the first systematic investigation of this behavior among adolescents, recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja report their findings from a large, randomly sampled population-based study of 12-to-17-year-olds in the U.S. Of the 5,593 adolescents surveyed, one in twenty admitted to engaging in ‘digital self harm’. Specifically, 6 percent reported that they had ‘anonymously posted something online about myself that was mean.’ Among these, 36 percent said they had done it a few times, and 13 percent said they had done it many times. Likewise, 5 percent responded affirmatively to the statement, ‘I have anonymously cyberbullied myself.’ Among these, 37 percent had done it a few times, and 18 percent had done it many times.”

Why would anyone do such a thing to themselves?

Might there be a link between cyber self-harm and the practice of physical self-harm? Not for the most part, it would seem:

“…in this study, only 7 percent of those who admitted to digital self-harm reported a history of physical self-harm.”

Young people were more likely to cyber self-harm if they were victims of bullying by others:

“…those who were bullied at school were four to five times more likely, and those bullied online (by others) were seven to twelve times more likely…”

Is this analogous to Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims identify with their kidnappers? Is it a way for bullying victims to assert some warped form of control over the bullying process?

There are no happy explanations for this phenomenon, but perhaps the most disturbing is that some self-bullies are doing it to manipulate others:

“This suggests that some teens are consciously seeking out the cyber-bullied-victim role because it confers social benefits and can be a marker of status. In a culture shaped by a politics of identity, where white knights identify novel victims to be rescued, victim status may confer power or perks: ‘I can’t go to class today; I’m emotionally distressed because I’m being bullied online’; or perhaps simply, ‘I’m important enough to be targeted by haters.’”

In an earlier UnPacked, I wrote about a theory that western societies have progressed from an ‘honour culture’ (where status is earned by displays of dominance), to a ‘dignity culture’ (where status doesn’t need to be earned because it is conferred by shared humanity) and now to ‘victimhood culture’ (in which status must once again be earned, but this time by displays of how one has been put upon by others).

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I wonder if the phenomenon of cyber self-harm is evidence of an intersection between victimhood culture and another disturbing societal shift – the narcissism epidemic, i.e. the growing prevalence over recent decades of radically self-centred and self-aggrandising personality traits.

It must be stressed that in many cases cyber bullying is real and can have devastating consequences. Tech companies – and indeed the law enforcement authorities – need to be doing a lot more to protect people, and especially young people, online.

However, if the victimhood culture and narcissism epidemic theories are both true, then behaviours in which individuals seek to present themselves as victims is exactly what you’d expect to happen. And where better to show off your new status than on social media?