What on earth would drive a child to bully herself?
When UK 14-year-old Hannah Smith took her own life in 2013, investigators assumed she was being cyberbullied. After all, they’d found cruel messages sent to her on Ask.fm.
It wasn’t until an inquest found the messages were sent from an IP address located inside her own home, that the truth became clear. Hannah was sending the hate mail to herself.
Louis’s parents never even knew his laptop was in his bedroom - let alone that he was hiding it under the covers and spending hours trolling the YouTube account of a 16-year-old trans kid.
“You’re a useless waste of space … not deserving of a place in society, freak, freak, FREAK!” was a mild example of his commenting style. “I would rather disembowel my stomach than watch this video anymore” he posted under a video of a day out at the mall.
It became a nightly ritual - commenting viciously for hours on end, before finally collapsing, exhausted, in the blue glow of his hidden screen.
But the most disturbing thing about Louis’s habit? He was posting to his own social media accounts.
“You’re a useless waste of space … not deserving of a place in society, freak, freak, FREAK!”
Digital self-harm - the act of secretly sending abusive messages to yourself online - is a growing problem, say clinical psychologists, currently affecting about 6% of students aged 12 to 17.
But then cyberbullying in all its forms is an increasing problem. According to one recent study of young people seeking counselling, online bullying has increased by nearly 90% in just five years.
Experts point to a variety of factors to explain digital self-harm - from attention-seeking to self-loathing. Still others have told researchers they self-harm online as a way to test friendships, “to see how, or if, others would respond sympathetically,” explains Professor of Criminology Dr. Sameer Hinduja.
Co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre at Florida Atlantic University, Hindjuja has conducted one of the few studies that looks directly at digital self-harm.
Not surprisingly, he found strong correlations between the practice online self-directed hate and both depression and physical self-harm.
Becoming one’s own “hater” creates the opportunity for the kind of digital feistiness associated with celebrities like Rihanna and P!nk.
Kids who admit to having engaged in the practice agree they are often trying to elicit sympathy. “I sent the mean comments because I wanted people to tell me they loved me, needed me,” one 16-year-old girl reported to Vice journalist Annie Lord. It wasn’t a successful strategy.
“I said that my boyfriend didn’t care about me and just wanted my body, I said that my friends only put up with me because I’m easy to talk to and I told myself that I was just a stupid person. I took screen shots of the conversation and put it on my story. Some people were like ‘oh that’s unfortunate, good luck with that’ but most ignored it.”
“We exist under an economy of attention: the louder, more audacious and confrontational you are and the more parts of yourself you scoop out and plaster onto the internet, the more you succeed, gaining likes, power, and affirmation.”
Annie Lord, journalist
Others just savour the drama of being at the centre of an online brawl. “Being called a slut or fat or whatever, it made me feel seen,” admitted 17-year-old Natasha, who became her own Insta bully - and then responded “bravely” to the comments.
“Everyone in my class was really supportive, calling me ‘brave’ and thanking me for having the courage to talk about my anxiety so frankly.”
Becoming one’s own “hater” creates the opportunity for the kind of digital feistiness associated with celebrities like Rihanna and P!nk. And anyway, notes Natasha, “It sounds weird, but celebrities and popular people are always the ones who receive hate. That’s when you know you’re cool, when people can be arsed telling you to die.”
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