What is digital self-harm? Kids who bully THEMSELVES online more likely to attempt suicide

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Acts of self-harm such as cutting or hitting oneself are significant warning signs that someone is thinking about suicide. Now, new collaborative research finds “digital self-harm” among adolescents can lead to suicidal thoughts as well.

Kids can be quite cruel to each other, but they can also be very harsh on themselves. “Digital self-harm” is the act of posting, sending, or sharing hurtful content about yourself anonymously online, according to researchers. Decades ago, a frustrated teen may have vented their frustrations with a pen and paper. Nowadays, they’re much more likely to use an online forum or social media platform anonymously.

Child suicide rates continue to rise

Troublingly, suicide is the number two most common cause of death among Americans between 10 and 19 years-old. This unsettling trend, in combination with adolescents’ tendency to spend so much time online, served as the inspiration for this project.

Conducted by scientists at Florida Atlantic University, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Florida International University, this study is the first ever to demonstrate a clear association between digital self-harm and “suicidality.” All in all, researchers conclude that children who engage in digital self-harm are at an increased risk of both suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Researchers report that roughly nine percent of adolescents in the study admitted to anonymously posting something mean about themselves online. Another five percent admitted to flat-out cyberbullying themselves. Regarding suicidality specifically, about eight percent reported seriously contemplating suicide in the past year, while 5.3 percent attempted suicide during that time period.

Importantly, the analysis also found that those engaging in digital self-harm were five to seven times more likely to consider suicide and nine to 15 times more likely to actually make an attempt.

LGBTQ students 3 times more likely to consider suicide

The team did not note any significant differences in reference to either gender or race. However, non-heterosexual students were much more likely than their heterosexual peers to seriously consider attempting suicide (24.4% versus 6.9%) and to attempt suicide (10% versus 4.9%). As far as specific ages, 12-year-olds were the most likely to have thought about attempting suicide, but there were no differences across ages when it came to legitimate suicide attempts.

“We have identified a strong association between digital self-harm and suicidality,” says study co-author Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., a professor at the FAU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, within the College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, in a university release.

“As such, it’s imperative for health professionals to screen for digital self-harm to address underlying mental health problems among youth that may occur prior to or alongside suicidality. Moreover, parents and caregivers must convey to children that they are available to dialog, support, and assist with the root issues that may eventually manifest as digital self-harm,” the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University continues.

“Educators and other stakeholders must better prioritize the emotional and psychological needs of youth with opportunities for open dialog, skill building, and the provision of interactive and easily accessible online and offline support resources to ensure that those at-risk know that other people care about them.”

Suicide linked to rise in ‘sadness and hopelessness’

A large national sample of 12 to 17-year-old U.S. middle and high school students took part in a survey for this study. The research team focused on two distinct indicators of digital self-harm and looked for any and all associations with both suicidal thoughts and attempts over the prior year.

“It is clear that those youth who participate in digital self-harm are much more likely to think about or attempt suicide when compared to peers who do not engage in digital self-harm,” Prof. Hinduja concludes. “When considering the marked rise in sadness and hopelessness among U.S. adolescents over the last 10 years, our findings serve as another indicator that reflects a worsening state of mental health among teens.”

The study is published in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

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