Health & Science LGBTQ+

What parents need to know about “digital self-harm”

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Digital self-harm is a concerning phenomenon that has been growing among teens in recent years. This practice of anonymously sharing hurtful content about yourself online has been linked to thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts in teens. A recent study found that teens who engaged in digital self-harm were five to seven times more likely to report thoughts about suicide, and nine to 15 times more likely to attempt suicide. 

The lead author of the study, Justin W. Patchin explained the behavior to HuffPost: “Digital self-harm occurs when an individual creates an anonymous online account and uses it to publicly send hurtful messages or threats to one’s self. Most commonly…it manifests as threats or targeted messages of hate — the more extreme and rare forms of cyberbullying.”

In short, digital self-harm can best be explained as a form of cyberbullying in which the bully and the victim are the same person. Up to 9 percent of American teens have reported engaging in this behavior — and LGBTQ+ teens were more likely to do it than others. It’s often used as a coping strategy to manage difficult feelings related to trauma or significant mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

What to do if your child engages in digital self-harm

Digital self-harm can be a cry for help from a teen who does not have the coping strategies or communication tools to ask for support directly. If you suspect your child has engaged in digital self-harm, do not hesitate to bring up the topic. Asking about self-harm or thoughts of suicide will not plant the idea in their heads, but rather open the door for communication about a very difficult topic. They may need your reassurance that you are a safe person to confide in about their most troubling thoughts or actions.

The first step to safeguarding your child online is to make sure you have the proper parental controls and internet safeguards set in your household. However, since teens are often experts at circumventing those obstacles, the best way to find out what they’re doing online is to ask them directly. 

Keeping the lines of communication open, and starting the conversation from a place of non-judgment and empathy, will help them understand that you can be a vital source of support for them when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset. Our parents’ guide to self-harm can help you get through this tough talk together.

If you, your child, or someone you know is thinking about suicide, text HOME to 741741 to contact the Crisis Text Line and talk to a real person for mental health support and crisis intervention.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.