Digital self-harm – is it a cry for help?

As children’s use of the online world grows, increasing mental health issues such as self-harm are taking a different form online. Children are now actively seeking abuse online as a way to self-harm.  Our expert shares insight on this issue and ways to support young people.


Dr Tamasine Preece

Head of Personal and Social Education
Expert Website

It is very positive to see that professionals and parents are starting to think seriously about the emerging relationship between teenagers and the digital worlds and the subsequent impact on mental health. It is necessary, however, to explore not just issues such as access to problematic content and online bullying, but how a number of young people see their online self as an extension of their body and hurt the online reputation as a way of damaging their physical self.

I understand this behaviour as a form of digital self-harm: a child might create a fake account and send abusive messages to themselves. This can be seen as a cry for help, as the child waits to be rescued and reassured by messages of support from their peers. There are more complex ways in which this phenomenon can be viewed. The bullying or trolling messages can be a manifestation of how the child feel about themselves. Similarly, some children might deliberately provoke and offend online in the hope that they receive the negative attention and response that they believe that they deserve, perhaps due to low self-esteem or, again, as a cry for help.

These issues are difficult and sensitive and we are only just starting to come to terms with some of the more challenging aspects of adolescent online behaviour. It is important to remember, however, that adolescence can be a time of turmoil, identity-formation and risk. All children have the right to compassion, understanding and guidance as they attempt to navigate this period of their lives, made even more complicated as it is by new technologies.

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