While self-harm is seen to be physical abuse, now, more teens are using social media to encourage others to abuse them online. Experts give insight into why this is happening and what you can do to support your child.
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.
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 is important to learn to ride them out in a healthy way- whether it is 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 your 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.
While the public perception of self-harm generally centres on the physical abuse, the Internet provides opportunities for different behaviours that might be considered harmful to the individual. The tragic death of Hannah Smith in 2013, who committed suicide after what appeared to be cyberbullying was actually revealed to be abuse posted by Hannah herself on Ask.FM, a site where individuals could invite people to anonymously ask them questions (which we often abusive in nature).
While Ask.FM is not as popular are it once was, the celebrity trend for “roasting” – inviting offensive comments to be made to you by others – is also something we are seeing across many social media platforms. I am told by young people that the motivation for this has changed little over since the years of Ask.FM – you have to show you can cope with the “banter”, you have to show you’re resilient, you have to join in. However, they also tell me that while participation might be voluntary, for some the remarks can be hurtful and extremely upsetting.
One of the things I hear from young people over and over again is that they would not disclose concern or upset if they felt a parent would “go mad” as a result.
While our first reactions might be to tell a child off for upset caused by such invited abuse, it is important to realise that they are reaching out for help, not chastisement. Providing safe spaces for children to be able to talk about worries and concerns is more effective than a telling off – with issues as sensitive as self-harm the last thing we want is for children to feel they have no one they can talk to.
It’s easy to expect self-harm to always be a physical act of causing an injury to one’s body, but increasingly, children and young people are using the internet to cause themselves emotional harm. By posting images and selfies, (particularly alongside inflammatory comments or insults towards others) children have realised they can provoke other online users to send them negative and (often unbelievably) abusive comments about their appearance.
It’s hard to know for certain, but indications suggest being ‘roasted’ online reinforces the negative attitudes children and young people may be holding about themselves. If they believe they are ugly, or fat or worthless, then having that reinforced by other people (regardless of how much they may need to manipulate those comments into being) provides a perceived sense of confirmation and validation. The comments may also fuel physical acts of self-harm, and prevent them from being tempted to ask for help.
This behaviour is often deeply secretive, incredibly shameful and very confusing for the children affected, as they may begin to find the online abuse addictive, leading them to become further isolated and self-loathing.
We are in an epidemic of young people feeling low self-esteem and anxiety, we have the highest number of hospital admissions due to self-harm schools and colleges are inundated with young people feeling lost and unsure about life.
Online forums allow young people to validate some of the things they feel about themselves. It may seem strange to you and I but if I think and believe the bad things about myself to be true, hearing someone else say it confirms it in myself somehow.
It can also be that young people seek it out in the hope that someone they love will intervene and tell those ‘roasting’ them that it is not true.
Using social media as a positive tool for recovery, not self-harm
There are more and more pro-recovery sites online now than ever before, The Mix and Childline both offer online forums and counselling for young people to engage with to help them deal with not only self-harm but other difficulties too. SelfharmUK also has a website with new content to help people tackle the issues of self-harm.
Self-harm can be a very complicated subject. There are many factors that underlie why someone would actively choose to harm themselves. In short, self-harm is about a release of some emotional, psychological and at times physical pain. The motivation to harm oneself comes from a deep-seated set of feelings that include self-loathing/hatred, fear, sadness and anger.
Why children “cyber- self-harm” is a variation on the other forms of self-harm and CYP may put themselves into situations online where they ask for “a roasting” (to be humiliated, criticised and berated at the hands of others or by themselves) in an attempt to resolve and release themselves from an inordinate amount of pain. Children who cyber self-harm are in a very stuck place.
If your child is asking others to criticise/humiliate and roast them online take a moment to contemplate that they are perhaps trying to ‘own’ the mean/unkindness of others as a way to help them deal with their own self-esteem and confidence issues, it’s much easier to laugh at yourself before others do as this ‘lessens the pain’ and that’s exactly what many children and young people are trying to do. In a world of perfectness, we can all fall foul to self-criticism. If you could own it first; would you?
For young people, social media provides a world of connections, access to information and knowledge. But with it comes constant pressure to respond, update and be available, which can result in negative consequences.
Social media is here to stay and young people often tell us of the huge benefits of being able to connect with others online. However, as the online world is increasingly inhabited by us all 24/7, we need to ensure young people are looking after themselves by building resilience to online pressures from an early age.
See more articles and resources to keep children safe online.