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Cyberbullying Surprise: When Teens Bully Themselves

After a decade of studying teens’ use and misuse of technology, Dr. Justin Patchin did not think there was anything adolescents could do online that would surprise him.

Turns out, he was wrong.

A surprising – and alarming – number of middle and high school-age youth are posting, sending, or in other ways sharing online hurtful content about themselves, according to Patchin’s just-published research, a first-of-its-kind study on digital self-harm among adolescents.

“Sending hurtful messages to themselves in a more public way may be a way to make the other bullying more visible; it’s a way to bring attention to the bullying that no one else sees. In other words, it’s a cry for help.” – Justin Patchin, UW-Eau Claire professor

“I was shocked to think that this was even a possibility,” says Patchin, a criminal justice professor at UW-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “I’ve been studying cyberbullying a long time and it never occurred to me that someone would post harmful things about themselves until I heard about a 14-year-old girl in England who committed suicide after sending hateful messages to herself.”

With that teen’s story and a couple other high-profile cases in mind, Patchin and his research partner, Dr. Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University, added two questions about digital self-harm to a survey they sent in 2016 to more than 5,700 middle and high school students across the country.

Patchin and Hinduja’s paper discussing the digital self-harm research appeared in the December issue of the Journal of Adolescent Heath.

In their survey, they asked teens about participating in digital self-harm and their motivations for engaging in the behavior. 

The researchers were stunned when nearly 6 percent of the teens who responded reported that they had anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean.

Among those who had, about half (51.3 percent) said they did it just once, about one-third (35.5 percent) said they did it a few times, while 13.2 percent said they had done it many times.

“We included the questions but didn’t really expect the numbers to be very high,” says Patchin, an internationally known expert on cyberbullying. “We were expecting maybe 1 percent so we were very surprised when it was closer to 6 percent. This tells us there are large numbers of teens who are engaging in this behavior.”

Traditional forms of self-injury among teens, such as cutting, have gained increased attention in recent years as the number of teens engaging in the behavior has risen. An estimated 13-18 percent of adolescents worldwide engage in traditional self-injurious behaviors during their lifetime, research suggests.

The online version of this self-injury behavior – digital self-harm – just has recently been identified so little study has been done on it. Patchin and Hinduja’s current work is the first comprehensive investigation of this behavior among middle and high school students.

Among the study’s surprises is that significantly more males than females report sending or posting harmful messages about themselves, Patchin says. The researchers assumed digital self-harm was an issue more common among girls because the few cases that are widely known involve females, he says. Instead, they found that about 7 percent of the male survey respondents reported posting mean things about themselves compared to 5 percent of the female respondents.

However, the motives for engaging in the digital self-harm behaviors differ based on gender, with the reasons cited by girls raising more concerns, Patchin says. Males describe the behavior as a joke or a way to gain attention, while females say they do it because they are depressed or otherwise hurting psychologically.

“Fewer girls report doing it but we believe they are more at-risk,” Patchin says. “There is more of a possibility that the behaviors in girls could escalate and lead to attempted suicide or suicide.”

The age and race of the youth were not factors in the prevalence of digital self-injury behaviors, but other factors do increase risks, Patchin says. Teens who identified as non-heterosexual were three times more likely to cyberbully themselves, he says.

In addition, teens who were bullied at school or online were more likely to engage in digital self-harm behaviors, Patchin says. Specifically, victims of other cyberbullying were nearly 12 times as likely to have cyberbullied themselves compared to those who were not victims, he says.

“Our theory is that the previous bullying or cyberbullying may be taking place in the dark corners of the school or online in places that no one else sees,” Patchin says. “Sending hurtful messages to themselves in a more public way may be a way to make the other bullying more visible; it’s a way to bring attention to the bullying that no one else sees. In other words, it’s a cry for help.”

In fact, their data found that many teens who had participated in digital self-harm were looking for a response, Patchin says, noting that of the 160 responses to the question of why the youth engaged in digital self-harm, nearly half included some reference to wanting a response from others.

Teens who reported using drugs or participating in deviance, had depressive symptoms, or had previously engaged in self-harm behaviors offline also were all significantly more likely to have engaged in digital self-harm, Patchin says.

Based on their findings, Patchin says he encourages educators, police officers, parents and others who investigate cyberbullying cases to consider the possibility that a victim is sending or posting the hurtful messages themselves.

For example, he recently received a call from a police officer who was investigating hateful online messages directed at a young female. With their survey data in mind, Patchin suggested that the officer consider the possibility that the girl had posted the messages herself.

“I immediately felt guilty for even suggesting it,” Patchin says. “Here is a girl asking for help from her dad and the police and I’m saying maybe she’s doing it to herself. Still, I was not entirely surprised when the officer called back to say that the girl admitted she had written them herself.”