What parents need to know about ‘digital self-harm’

By Dr. Linda Papadopoulos on

Dr Linda offers advice on how digital platforms are now being used by teens as to self-harm ‘digitally’ and what parents can do to support their children through it.

It is estimated that about 1 in 10 people self-harm (source: Royal College of Psychiatrists) but this is probably an underestimation as many people do not seek help for self-harm, feel ashamed or even try and hide it.

I, like most psychologists that work with young people, have seen a sort of normalisation to self-harm over the past few years, with more young people discussing it or having encountered it in their friendship groups.

Part of this is that I believe has to do with the fact that mental illnesses have a ‘contagious’ component whereby we become sensitised to the way others feel and if we are prone to similar feelings attempt to deal with them like those around us even if their coping mechanism are faulty or ineffective.

What is digital self-harm?

In recent years with the advent of the internet and social media- much of identity, social interaction and indeed mental health issues are beginning to be played out online.  One of the things that I am beginning to see is something that I call “digital self-harm”.  It has all the hallmarks of self-harm in that the person who enacts it is in a state of high emotion distress and inner turmoil- feeling isolated, powerless and out of control.

But rather than seeking out a blade they turn to the online world to invite others to cut through them emotionally.  This is such a new phenomenon that in the few meetings that I have been with colleagues there is no real consensus on what we are seeing but a few themes that I think are relevant include:

Acknowledgement of pain: it’s important that one’s pain is seen as this make it feel real and so worthy of attention- this is also the case with physical self-harm, where the ability to see the pain is containing, comforting and makes it more real/ manageable.

A need to assert control: feelings aren’t facts but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to make sense of the negative feelings that we hold about ourselves – as a consequence the vitriol that one invites from the online world may be an attempt to make sense of the painful emotions they feel.

An attempt to be listened to: even if those listening are being negative and cruel, the fact that someone is listening can paradoxically be of comfort.

How can you help as a parent?

It can be hugely upsetting if parents suspect that their kids are going through this. As is the case with all health related issues the sooner you get them talking about it and seeking support the better.  Explain that emotions come and go and even at their most painful they don’t last forever so it’s important to learn to ride them out in a healthy way- whether it’s by distracting themselves with other behaviours or activities or by talking about it.

Try not be critical or judgmental, instead encourage them to let you know when they feel like self-harming so you can help them through it- finally if you feel you need further support and guidance speak to you GP and ask for a referral to a registered therapist or there are places that can you give you and our family professional support online such as Selfharm.co.uk – a project dedicated to supporting young people who are affected by self-harm or Self Injury Support which provides a young women’s text and email service, any age helpline for women who self-harm, UK-wide listings for self-harm support and self help tools.

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