Teens’ digital self-abuse: New insight

A just-published observation by social media researcher danah boyd is important for two reasons I can think of right now: 1) it strongly confirms the importance of adults not reacting too quickly to “cyberbullying” incidents or of not acting without calm communication and investigation, and 2) it starts an important discussion about the online versions of self-destructive behavior. Let’s look at the second one first:

Is it technically ‘self-harm’?

Referring to “digital self-harm” – as in the digital version of cutting, for example – boyd relates that Formspring.me, a social Q&A site, had contacted her about a troubling discovery it had made. The staff had been trying to figure out how to deal with harassment among teen users and discovered that “a number of vicious questions were posted by
the Formspring account owners themselves,” boyd writes. “They appeared on Formspring as anonymous but they were written by the owner while logged into their own account.”

Two commenters to boyd’s post who sound like they know what they’re talking about (one who says she used to engage in physical self-harm), object to the term “self-harm” – the first (“Meg”) because she says self-harm is not a cry for help, as danah suggests (and as the Formspring self-abuse seems to be); rather, Meg says, it’s the only way some people (whose “coping mechanisms are overwhelmed”) know how to relieve the pressure and pain and “control at least one thing in their life” (she says “the physical pain [releases] … chemicals that genuinely do make you feel better”). Digital self-abuse can’t replace that, it appears, but it can do other things. The other, “quinn,” says, interestingly: “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’.”

But a third commenter, a police officer (who wrote boyd privately and gave her permission to post his note), reinforces one of boyd’s explanations for this self-abusive behavior, if not her term for it: He’d been called in to help with the investigation of a series of threatening notes left on a student’s desk. “Upon very close examination of the notes, it became apparent to me that our victim was the one who was writing the notes. The positive to all of this was that a troubled girl now got the attention and help that she needed.”

Please see boyd’s post for the other two fascinating explanations she offers for the behavior, but the first one, which seems to be what the police officer’s story bears out, is “a cry for help. 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.” Which leads to my first point: why it’s so important that we not respond reflexively to what we see of our children’s online experiences – and especially not overreact – because we may not be seeing a complete picture or wholly factual representation.

Important to respond thoughtfully

So here’s further confirmation that not all bullying messages kids receive online are from other kids. We also know from Dr. Sonia Livingstone’s research in the UK that teens sometimes fictionalize parts of their profiles and other online content (see this). We might also see the online version of normative “acting out” or claiming (see this and this), or a peer group’s genuine inside joke that only looks disturbing to outsiders. Being able to see these things can be disturbing but it’s also a great gift to parents and others who want to help and now have information or talking points for helping teens going through a difficult time in their lives.

I love what boyd writes to parents about 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.” Think about it: When that happens, parents are increasing the very victimization they want to stop! When they act in anger, they’re also in danger of modeling bullying behavior for the kids involved, sending conflicting messages.

When our children are suffering, we naturally want to stop the hurt as fast as possible, and so we reject complexity and seek quick fixes or formulaic solutions. The thing is, though, very often the process of really communicating with our kids, open-mindedly getting to the bottom of what’s going on, and listening a lot is what helps our children the most.

Related links

* To give you a feel for the level of interest in Formspring internationally: This past year, “Formspring” was the fastest-rising Google search term in three countries: Australia, the UK, and Brazil (which always seems to be at the cutting edge of social media – see this).
* “Self-injurers on the social Web”
* “1 in 6 self-injure”
* “Formspring: What’s going on around it?”
* “Formspring: What’s really going on?”


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