The agony of digital self-harm: Teens cyberbully themselves in cry for help

NORTHEAST OHIO (WOIO) - Thirteen-year-old Allison Lin surfs social media quite a bit and is sometimes surprised at what her friends post—about themselves.

Lin says they say things like, "Their hair doesn't look good. They're ugly. They're fat, use words that don't describe them very well."

Researchers say it's a frightening new trend: teens attacking and bullying themselves online.

Justin Patchin, PhD, is a Professor of Criminal Justice and co-author of the Digital Self-Harm Study.

"Students will create a fake account or will post comments in an anonymous app that are of a hurtful nature or a threatening nature, and they'll basically be saying those things towards themselves," said Patchin.

This first got attention when an English teen posted digital messages of self-harm weeks before taking her own life.

Then, a Texas teen did something similar. These incidents triggered a recent study that found teens are taking self-harm to the digital level at an alarming rate.

Dr. Patchin explains, "We expected maybe one or two percent of students had done this. What we found was between five and six percent of students said they had either cyberbullied themselves online or posted something hurtful online anonymously about themselves."

The study of 5,700 middle and high school students also asked them why they were doing it. Dr. Patchin says, "Students said this was a cry for help. They were looking to see if somebody would respond, if somebody would reach out to help them."

They also found these devastating words are often connected to devastating actions, with Dr. Patchin explaining, "Those who participate in physical self-harm such as burning or cutting are more likely to participate in digital forms of self-harm. But we don't know which came first. We don't know if one leads to the other."

They advise parents of these teens to get them a mental health evaluation.

Allison says she'd talk with her friends if they kept insulting themselves…and maybe more.

"If it was one of my friends and I was pretty close to them I might come to the parents."

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