BOCA RATON, Fla. — Adolescent victims of cyberbullying have increasingly become their own perpetrators, a new study finds, and experts warn this form of “digital self-harm” is growing at alarming rates.
Researchers at Florida Atlantic University surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,593 middle and high school students, finding that “self-cyberbullying” — when youth publish malicious content about themselves online — is on the rise.
Much like other types of self-harm, the researchers believe such behavior represents a cry for help that has largely gone unheeded.
“The idea that someone would cyberbully themselves first gained public attention with the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith in 2013 after she anonymously sent herself hurtful messages on a social media platform just weeks before she took her own life,” explains Dr. Sameer Hinduja, the study’s author, in a university news release.
“We knew we had to study this empirically, and I was stunned to discover that about 1 in 20 middle- and high-school-age students have bullied themselves online,” he continues. “This finding was totally unexpected, even though I’ve been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years.”
Sure enough, in their inquiry, Hinduja and fellow researcher Dr. Justin W. Patchin, who teachers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, found that six percent of respondents had anonymously posted something mean about themselves on the internet.
While most of these respondents said they had only done so once, significant segments indicated having done so twice (35.5 percent), or many times (13.2 percent).
Although boys were more likely than girls to partake in this form of self-deprecation, young females were much more likely to act in such a manner due to psychological trauma. Boys reported self-cyberbullying more frequently as a joke or to simply get attention.
The researchers saw this motive to be particularly troubling, as it may lead to grave consequences down the road, including attempted or successful suicide.
In addition to young females, youth who identified as non-heterosexual or had previously been cyberbullied by others were much more likely to cyberbully themselves. In fact, those who’d been cyberbullied before were 12 times more likely to engage in self-trolling, the researchers found.
Other risk factors for this form of self-abuse included drug use, depressive symptoms, and previous engagement in behaviors related to self-harm.
“Prior research has shown that self-harm and depression are linked to increased risk for suicide and so, like physical self-harm and depression, we need to closely look at the possibility that digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts,” Hinduja concludes. “We need to refrain from demonizing those who bully, and come to terms with the troubling fact that in certain cases the aggressor and target may be one and the same. What is more, their self-cyberbullying behavior may indicate a deep need for social and clinical support.”
The full study was published online last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health.