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What is digital self-harm, and why are teens doing it?

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski

stressed teen boy sitting in front of laptop

Please be advised that this article mentions suicide. If you’re in crisis, help is available now: Call the free, confidential 988 Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

I worry constantly about my teenage daughters’ online safety, but those threats have always been external in nature: cyberbullying, phishing, and so on. Now mental health experts are reporting a new trend in which teens are using digital tools to damage their own online reputations. This behavior is called “digital self-harm,” and it has both therapists and parents concerned.

Digital self-harm vs. physical self-harm

Psychotherapist Tony Sheppard, who specializes in adolescents and self-harm, explains that there are two aspects to self-harm: the physical and the psychological.

“In traditional self-harm, we tend to focus on the fact that this young person is cutting themselves or burning themselves, and we don’t really think as much about the psychological side of it,” Sheppard says. “Digital self-harm is not focused on the physical body per se, but on the psyche of the person.”

Digital self-harm” means anonymously posting, sending, or sharing hurtful online content about yourself.1 This may include posting negative comments, sending embarrassing or inflammatory photos, or posting hateful self-directed messages. In a 2019 study, one in 10 students reported engaging in digital self-harm.2  

Reasons for digital self-harm

Self-harm in any form is a devastating discovery for parents, who are often left wondering why it happened. There are two broad reasons why people engage in this behavior, Sheppard says:

  • To bring about change in themselves: The motivation is often to regulate yourself, Sheppard explains. “We know there’s an endorphin release that happens with self-harm where, prior to an episode, someone can be pretty emotionally dysregulated,” he says. “That endorphin release has a self-regulating component.” So if a teen gets upset over an incident at school, for example, they might hurt themselves to quiet some of that stress because they lack the tools to self-regulate in a healthy way.
  • To bring about change in their environment: This could be the result of a breakup, bullying, or another form of negative interaction with the outside world. “The motivation here would be getting others to act in a certain way,” Sheppard says. If a teen is being bullied, for example, they may engage in self-harming behavior to elicit support or concern from others.

While physical self-harm injures your body, says Sheppard, digital self-harm damages your online image or persona, which may feel just as sacred.

It’s not just about getting attention

Self-harm is often dismissed as an attention-seeking behavior. One researcher even referred to it as “digital Munchausen” because it can have similar motivating factors to Munchausen syndrome.3 In that syndrome, a type of factitious disorder, a person fakes illness for attention, comfort, praise, or concern from their community.4 Digital self-harm can have the same kind of result.

Sheppard cautions that this take on digital self-harm may be too simple, though: “The person has a need that they’re trying to get met, and they think harming themselves is the only way to get it.”

“There’s no shame in wanting attention,” he adds. “People need attention. It’s our job as therapists to work with people to seek that attention in a healthy way.”

This resonated with me as a parent. Young people can ask for our help or get our attention in so many ways. If they resort to hurting themselves, there are deeper issues at play.

Signs your teen may be in trouble

Digital self-harm can be hard to detect. It usually comes to light through checking kids’ social media or hearing from them directly. That said, it’s worth keeping an eye out for several behaviors that may indicate a teen’s desire to self-harm—or even a pattern of suicidal ideation.

They isolate themselves. This is a warning sign for many mental health concerns and should be addressed right away. Your child may withdraw from friends, drop out of after-school activities, suddenly leave a job, or stop coming to family functions. It’s important to note that being online is not a substitute for being social. Experts have found that teen and tweens spend more than half their screen time watching TV and videos, not connecting with friends.5

They self-sabotage. Sheppard says to take note if your child is “isolating themselves from their own online communities.” If they’re a part of an online community, have they recently stopped engaging? If so, they may be using digital self-harm to withdraw from a supportive group.

They talk about being a burden. A teen may suddenly question their place in the family or their friend group, or start asking out loud if they contribute anything to the world. “The more you post these negative things about yourself, the more you start to internalize that as a part of your identity,” says Sheppard.

They’re facing other mental health challenges. Research shows that teens who engage in digital self-harm are more likely to have experience with school bullying, cyberbullying, depression, and drug use.6

Digital self-harm and suicidal ideation

Recent studies show a strong connection between digital self-harm and suicidal ideation. One study found that those engaged in digital self-harm were five to seven times more likely to have considered suicide and nine to 15 times more likely to have attempted to end their lives.7

Researchers are working to learn more about this connection—but being aware of it is important, even as these studies continue. If your child is engaging in digital self-harm, take action right away.

My teen is digitally self-harming. What now?

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: You find out your child is hurting themself. What should you do?

  • Look for therapy immediately, Sheppard advises, and not only for your child. “I always tell parents they will also need professional help in getting through this,” he says.
  • Make sure the therapist is the right fit. It can take a while to find a therapist your teen connects with. If they’ve had more than a few sessions and your child still isn’t receptive, you may need to try another clinician. Most therapists understand this and will help you find someone else, possibly in the same practice.
  • Find a therapist who uses motivational interviewing (MI).This form of questioning uses collaboration, evocation, and autonomy to explore a behavior and figure out how to change it.8 “MI helps [clients] better understand why a certain behavior is a problem,” says Sheppard, who uses and recommends this method. It also helps young people feel like their therapist is a partner in their treatment, not just an expert telling them what to do.

Accessible resources

Therapy isn’t always easy to find (our directory is a great place to start). If you have limited access to mental health resources, Sheppard suggests reaching out to your child’s school or community center. Many schools have a counselor who can help.

You might also look into free clinics at local universities. Graduate students often work with community members for experience that counts toward certification. These students are often supervised by seasoned therapists or other mental health professionals.

Finally, there are free online support groups where you can find guidance and resources, as well as other people who can relate to what you and your teen are going through.9

Stay connected

Protecting our kids from external danger is fairly straightforward: We can lock doors, enforce seat belts, screen potential dates. But protecting them from themselves is trickier, especially when it comes to self-harm.

As always, communication is the best tool we have for uncovering problems and encouraging our kids to come to us with any challenges. By watching out for red flags, staying up to date on social media, and offering a safe space for your teen to share their concerns, you can help them build the safety net they’ll need to navigate their mental health.

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is a senior writer at therapist.com. She is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.

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