Reflexive responses to digital bullying & self-harm not helpful

By Anne Collier

Readers, as new information has emerged in the UK’s recent teen suicide case, I felt it might be useful to you if I pull together several years’ worth of insights, wisdom and context on “digital self-harm.” So here’s Part 2 (Part 1 is here)….

If what executives reportedly said about the hate messages on Hannah Smith’s page is true – and it’s very likely to be – those messages were even more symptomatic (and less causative) of her troubles than originally thought (see my earlier post).

The social media site is reported to have told investigators that “98%” of the hate messages she received came from her own IP address, The Times of London reported. In other words, if true, this was another example of digital self-harm.

‘Digital self-harm’

First written about in late 2010 by social media researcher danah boyd, it highlights how crucial it is to respond calmly not reflexively, and really listen to our kids, when harassment happens in social media. The listening is vital for two reasons: getting to the bottom of what really happened (in the offline context and social circle as well as online) and helping the targeted child heal. More on that in a moment, but first a little background: isn’t the first social media company to report this. – now rebranded but still an older, US-based version of with its anonymity and Q&A format – contacted danah back then because of its abuse-reporting team’s discovery that kids were posting abusive messages to themselves in that site. In her post, danah relates her own learning process in working through the evidence of this emotional self-harm with Formspring.

Takeaways for parents

As I wrote in 2010, I was struck by how helpful danah’s takeaways could be to parents of children who are being hurt online, whether by themselves or others, and I wish all parents of social media users worldwide could “hear” this:

Supporting your daughter or son is not simply about finding the bully and prosecuting them or about going after their parents. Teens who are the victims of bullying – whether by a stranger, a peer, or themselves – are often in need of support, love, validation, and, most of all, healthy attention. I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve met who’ve been bullied by people at school who then turn to tell me about how their parents are absent – physically, mentally, or emotionally. And how often I hear teens complain about their parents trying to ‘fix’ things by getting involved in all the wrong ways. Ways that make the dynamics around bullying so much worse.

Why taking control doesn’t usually help

This is a big reason researchers give for children’s underreporting of online harassment (only about 25% do): that the reaction of the adults they report to could make the harassment or social marginalization of the target worse.

By summarily taking control of the situation without listening to and involving the targeted child, adults are doing the exact opposite of what that child needs – to regain his or her dignity or self-respect and get back some sense of the control that’s been lost in a situation that may’ve been unfolding for some time (and we all know the danger of acting on assumptions).

“As a parent,” said author, educator and parent Rosalind Wiseman, “what I want you to say to your child is [something like], ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you; thank you so much for coming and telling me’ … because your kid is taking a risk to tell you about this. Most of the time they think that going to an adult will make it worse. Then you say, ‘and together we’re going to work on this, we are going to think through how we can do this so you can feel that you’ve got some control over a situation where your control has been taken away from you.” Wiseman said that in a 2010 podcast by her fellow author, educator and parent Annie Fox (see this).

That self-harm in Web sites might be about loss of control too is borne out in an interesting comment by “quinn” below danah boyd’s post, someone who sounds like he knows what he’s writing about: “It might have something to do with self-criticism as defense measure: [as in] ‘if I’ve already said everything horrible that can be said, no one can use those things to hurt me’ – a teenage version of ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’.”

Listening can lead to healing

Young people themselves say being listened to helps. A milestone survey by the “Youth Voice Project” in 2010 found that students who’ve been targeted by bullying feel what helps most is to be heard and acknowledged, by peers or adults. The three responses “likely to lead to things getting better for the [targeted] student than to things getting worse” were “listened to me,” “gave me advice,” and “checked in with me afterwards to see if the behavior stopped.” Coming in at a notably distant 4th, interestingly, was “kept up increased adult supervision for some time.” From peers, the top three were “Spent time with me,” “Talked to me,” and “Helped me get away.” The study’s authors, Charisse Nixon and Stan Davis, wrote that “positive peer actions were strikingly more likely to be rated more helpful than were positive self actions or positive adult actions.”

When our children are suffering, we naturally want to stop the hurt as fast as possible, and so we want to reject complexity and find quick fixes or formulaic solutions. The thing is, though, there is no formula – every digital harassment case is as individual as the people involved – and to slow down and listen, rather than act reflexively, may actually be the fix, or a big part of it. If not, it’s what children are asking for, and at the very least it demonstrates our respect for them and helps them process what happened, learn from it, and regain the sense of dignity they lost. Maybe that’s why they want to be heard.

Related links

  • Cries for attention: In the interview she gave Annie Fox, Rosalind Wiseman offers parents suggestions for the kind of conversation to have with your child if you’re lucky enough to be consulted when things go south. But if you’re not, try to keep communication lines wide open. As danah boyd wrote in 2010, “Teens want their parents (and perhaps others in their lives) to notice them and pay attention to them, support them and validate them. They want these people to work diligently to stop the unstoppable but, more importantly, to spend time focused on helping them.”
  • A different view on motivations: In her 2012 study of digital self-harm, psychologist Elizabeth Englander at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center found that “both male and female subjects were most likely to say they actually did this in an attempt to gain the attention of a peer…. Girls were more likely than boys to say that their motivation was ‘proving I could take it,’ encouraging others ‘to worry about me,’ or to ‘get adult attention.’
Boys were more likely to say that they did this because they were mad, as a way to start a fight (presumably, they would falsely blame the person they were angry at).”
  • A concise but thorough blog post on “self-cyberbullying” & the Smith case by Prof. Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center
  • About a conversation on NPR about why kids don’t tell their parents about being bullied or cyberbullied
  • “Peering thoughtfully through this window into our kids’ lives”
  • “Hurting others hurts us”