Digital Self-Harm Surges Among U.S. Teens from 2016 to 2021

Adolescents worldwide have embraced social media and online platforms for self-expression and to explore their identity. This freedom, however, can lead to risky behaviors, especially with limited adult supervision. For example, digital self-harm is a recent, emerging trend where individuals anonymously post or share hurtful content about themselves online. This behavior can be mistaken for mistreatment by others, yet the perpetrator and victim are the same person.

First identified in 2010, digital self-harm has not received the same amount of scholarly scrutiny as other forms of self-directed abuse and has not been widely addressed by adults working with youth.

To address this growing issue, researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire analyzed three independent national surveys (2016, 2019 and 2021) of teens in the United States ages 13 to 17, to assess the prevalence of digital self-harm. They explored two measures of digital self-harm: if teens had anonymously posted something mean about themselves online in their lifetime and if they had anonymously cyberbullied themselves online in their lifetime.

Results of the study, published in the Journal of School Violence, reveal that a meaningful proportion of U.S. youth has been involved in digital self-harm. Between 2019 and 2021, approximately 9 to 12% of 13 to 17 year olds in the U.S. engaged in digital self-harm, a more than 88% increase since 2016. This upward trajectory, particularly among specific demographic groups, highlights the need for targeted interventions and support systems – especially given that research has shown a strong association between digital self-harm and traditional self-harm, as well as between digital self-harm and suicidality.

The current study included three demographic variables: gender, race and sexual orientation, and also examined whether individuals who experienced cyberbullying were more likely to engage in digital self-harm. Cyberbullying was defined as when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person (on purpose to hurt them) online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • In 2016, 6.3% of students anonymously posted mean content about themselves online, while 4.1% anonymously cyberbullied themselves. Male students were more likely than females to anonymously cyberbully themselves. Non-heterosexual students were significantly more likely than heterosexual students to engage in both forms of digital self-harm.
  • In 2019, rates increased, with 9% anonymously posting mean content and 5.3% anonymously cyberbullying themselves. Non-heterosexual youth continued to exhibit higher rates of digital self-harm.
  • In 2021, rates increased further, with 11.9% anonymously posting mean content and 9.3% anonymously cyberbullying themselves. Female and non-heterosexual youth were significantly more likely to engage in digital self-harm.
  • Students who experienced cyberbullying were five to seven times more likely to have digitally self-harmed compared to students who had not been cyberbullied.
  • While there were no consistent race differences across all years, students from racial backgrounds other than white were more likely to anonymously post mean things about themselves online. Hispanic students were more likely than white students to anonymously cyberbully themselves.
  • Female and non-heterosexual youth are consistently more likely to engage in digital self-harm compared to male and heterosexual youth. Non-heterosexual youth particularly show a significantly higher likelihood of participating in both forms of digital self-harm across all years.

“Digital self-harm has been linked with major issues such as bullying, depression, eating disorders, physical harm, sleep disturbances and even suicidal tendencies,” said Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., co-author, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. “With increasing global attention from youth-serving professionals on this phenomenon, it’s clear that digital self-harm is a significant public health issue that warrants further research to identify solutions that can serve as protective factors to forestall its incidence as well as its impact.”

Several motivations have previously been identified that contribute to digital self-harm such as self-hate, to be funny, to seek attention, the desire to look cool, to show resilience and toughness, or a cry for help.

“It’s also crucial to understand why young people engage in digital self-harm and help them develop healthier coping mechanisms,” said Hinduja. “Moreover, it’s essential that parents, educators and mental health professionals working with young people extend support to all targets of online abuse in informal and conversational, as well as formal and clinical settings.”

Study co-author is Justin Patchin, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

– FAU –

About Florida Atlantic University: Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students across six campuses located along the southeast Florida coast. In recent years, the University has doubled its research expenditures and outpaced its peers in student achievement rates. Through the coexistence of access and excellence, FAU embodies an innovative model where traditional achievement gaps vanish. FAU is designated a Hispanic-serving institution, ranked as a top public university by U.S. News & World Report and a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit www.fau.edu.

 

 

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