By Judy Berthiaume, UW-Eau Claire Integrated Marketing and Communications
After a decade of studying teens’ use and misuse of technology, UW-Eau Claire Prof. Justin Patchin did not think there was anything adolescents could do online that would surprise him.
Turns out, his latest research showed he was wrong.
That study was a first-of-its-kind look at digital self-harm among adolescents. It found that a surprising — and alarming — number of middle and high school-age youth are posting, sending or in other ways sharing online hurtful content about themselves.
“I was shocked to think that this was even a possibility,” said Patchin, a criminal justice professor at UW-EC and co-director of its Cyberbullying Research Center. “I’ve been studying cyberbullying a long time and it never occurred to me that someone would post harmful things about themselves until I heard about a 14-year-old girl in England who committed suicide after sending hateful messages to herself.”
With that teen’s story and a couple of other high-profile cases in mind, Patchin and his research partner, Dr. Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University, added two questions about digital self-harm to a survey they sent last year to more than 5,700 middle and high school students across the country. The new questions asked teens about participating in digital self-harm and their motivations for engaging in this behavior.
Stunned by Results
The researchers were stunned when nearly 6% of the responding teens reported they had anonymously posted online something mean about themselves. In that group, about half (51.3%) said they did it just once, about one-third (35.5%) said they did it a few times, while 13.2% said they had done it many times.
“We included the questions but didn’t really expect the numbers to be very high,” said Patchin, who is internationally known as an expert on cyberbullying. “We were expecting maybe 1% so we were very surprised when it was closer to 6%.
“This tells us there are large numbers of teens who are engaging in this behavior.”
Traditional forms of self-injury among teens, such as cutting, have recently gained increased attention as the number of teens engaging in such behavior has risen. An estimated 13-18% of adolescents worldwide engage in traditional self-injurious behaviors during their lifetime, research suggests.
The online version of this self-injury behavior — digital self-harm — has just recently been identified, so little study has been done on it. Patchin and Hinduja’s current work is the first comprehensive investigation of this behavior among middle and high school students.
Among the study’s surprises is that significantly more males than females report sending or posting harmful messages about themselves, Patchin said.
Assumption was Wrong
The researchers assumed digital self-harm was an issue more common among girls because the few widely known cases involve females, he said. Instead, about 7% of the male survey respondents reported posting mean things about themselves compared to 5% of the female respondents.
However, the motives for engaging in digital self-harm behaviors differ based on gender, with the reasons cited by girls raising more concerns, Patchin noted. Males describe the behavior as a joke or a way to gain attention, while females say they do it because they are depressed or otherwise hurting psychologically.
“Fewer girls report doing it but we believe they are more at-risk,” Patchin said. “There is more of a possibility that the behaviors in girls could escalate and lead to attempted suicide or suicide.”
Age and race were not factors in the prevalence of digital self-injury behaviors, but other factors do increase risks, Patchin said, adding that teens who identified as non-heterosexual were three times more likely to cyberbully themselves. In addition, teens who were bullied at school or online were more likely to engage in digital self-harm behaviors, he said.
Specifically, victims of other cyberbullying were nearly 12 times as likely to have cyberbullied themselves as those who were not victims, he said. This may be an effort to bring attention to the bullying that would otherwise remain unknown – “In other words, it’s a cry for help,” he said.
“Our theory is that the previous bullying or cyberbullying may be taking place in the dark corners of the school or online in places that no one else sees,” Patchin said. “Sending hurtful messages to themselves in a more public way may be a way to make the other bullying more visible.”
In fact, their data found that many teens who had participated in digital self-harm were looking for a response, Patchin said, noting that nearly half of the 160 responses to the question of why they engaged in digital self-harm included some reference to wanting a response from others.
Teens who reported participating in deviant activities such as drug use, had depressive symptoms, or had previously engaged in self-harm behaviors offline also were significantly more likely to have engaged in digital self-harm, Patchin said.
Need to Consider Self-Harm
Based on these findings, Patchin said he encourages educators, police officers, parents and others who investigate cyberbullying cases to consider the possibility that a victim is sending or posting the hurtful messages themselves.
For example, he recently received a call from a police officer who was investigating hateful online messages directed at a young female. With the survey data in mind, Patchin suggested that the officer consider the possibility that the girl had posted the messages herself.
“I immediately felt guilty for even suggesting it,” Patchin said. “Here is a girl asking for help from her dad and the police and I’m saying maybe she’s doing it to herself. Still, I was not entirely surprised when the officer called back to say that the girl admitted she had written them herself.”
Regardless of who posts the hurtful words, the victim needs support, Patchin said.
“If someone is being cyberbullied — regardless if it is by a stranger, a former best friend or themselves — they need help,” he stressed. “Who is doing the cyberbullying is less important than the impact it’s having on the teen.
“Everyone — including us — is shocked that this is a thing. Now that we know it is happening, we need to get these kids help. We need public discussions about the issue so we can help people better identify problems before they escalate. Already, there have been suicides so we need to build awareness.”
The paper by Patchin and Hinduja discussing their digital self-harm research appears in the Journal of Adolescent Heath.
For more information, contact Patchin at 715-836-4058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: the home page photo of Prof. Justin Patchin was provided by Integrated Marketing and Communications at UW-Eau Claire.