Digital Self-Harm is a Thing, a Very Serious Thing

Despite our best efforts, bullying has stood the test of time. Psychologists are hinting that teenagers are now beginning to show signs of “Digital Self-Harm”, where they post anonymous hurtful content about oneself. This form of bullying is so bizarre and counter-intuitive, we’re unlikely to have any real solutions soon.

Everyone remembers — perhaps not so fondly — their school bully.

It was that kid who made you wake up each morning and ask your parents if there was a bandh; or whether a relative had died, requiring the whole family to take leave for the funeral; or if the “mystery package” you sent said relative had reached yet, and whether they had consumed the contents of the same and were now feeling somewhat under the weather…

Look, the point here is that we’ve all done some questionable things to avoid bullies, and getting into a discussion on whose aunt or uncle did or did not end up in the ICU is moot. Bullies are the real concern here.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Huh, I never had a bully in school,” guess what? It was probably you.

For the rest of us, there’s some bad news — ever since we were given the gift of the internet, bullying has gotten a lot worse. If you thought atomic wedgies, sand in food, and poorly drafted “yo-mama” jokes were the pinnacle of bullying, think again.

While in the pre-internet era, we had the option to run home and hide when things got too bad, kids these days find it much tougher to disengage. Much like Arjun Rampal’s presence in a Shah Rukh Khan film, cyberbullying has become the add-on accessory to physical bullying that no one asked for.

Cyberbullying has become the add-on accessory to physical bullying that no one asked for.

The worst part about digital bullying is that it’s mostly done anonymously. As studies have shown, our ability to extract perverse, petty, and often cruel pleasure from another’s misfortune is pushed into overdrive when our comments are guaranteed anonymity. Apps such as Yik Yak, Whisper, and Secret have been accused of not only facilitating cyberbullying, but actually encouraging it to increase online traffic. Put all this into the hands of teenagers (who, let’s face it, are idiots by design) and it’s easy to see how vehemently soul crushing cyberbullying can be.

A victim must endure a barrage of posts about their looks, intelligence, and sexual orientation, all while nursing an already bruised ego from having their head dunked in a toilet earlier that day. With studies saying one in three US kids have been subjected to some form of cyberbullying, and teenage suicide rates moving in a similar trajectory, there’s significant cause for worry.

But wait… It gets worse.

Assume you’re a parent who believes their child is being cyberbullied. You somehow gain access to the chat room and wade through pop culture references, acronyms, and slang, all of which fly well above your head. Against all odds, you identify the source of the mean comments directed at your child, only to realise that it is in fact your own child that’s posting these comments about themselves.

Why, you ask, would anyone cyberbully themselves?

This was precisely the case when Natalie Natividad, a 15-year-old girl from Texas, consumed a fatal overdose of pills back in 2016. Her parents, who went to weed out the identity of the bully, discovered that Natalie had been the one posting the comments about herself. Psychologists are calling this “Digital Self-Harm” — a term that has led to a slew of theories, analyses, and super worried parents who, until now had always assumed that all it took to put a stop to these shenanigans was to have a stern word with the parents of their child’s bully. According to Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, digital self-harm is the “anonymous online posting, sending or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.”

Interestingly, it’s not unheard of for even mainstream sites to tacitly promote this form of self-harm. On one of Reddit’s most popular subs is r/RoastMe. Here individuals put a photo of themselves up for the internet to savagely mock. And, as always, the internet is only too happy to oblige. Threads are riddled with anonymous commenters degrading the subject based on their appearance and anything else they can latch on to in one photo.

Some teenagers will knowingly put themselves down because they’re expecting someone else to defend them.

By this point, any rational individual is clearly still grappling with the “why?” of all this. Surely, there can’t be so many kids doing this that psychologists had to go out and coin a whole phrase for it!?

Several reasons have been identified for this behaviour, but let me take you through the three main contenders:

First, being self-deprecating can be its own form of defence. Ask the English and they’ll tell you that putting oneself down is an effective way to ensure that no one else can. It’s the reason they keep declaring how rubbish their cricket team is (of course, when they sneakily win the World Cup, the whole world knows it’s an act). It’s tougher to make fun of someone who’s already doing it to themselves.

The second is a little stranger. Some teenagers will knowingly put themselves down because they’re expecting someone else to defend them. This includes “Sadfishing” — which is less about finding cheap sushi, and more about getting a reaction online. By saying you’re ugly, you’re hoping comments flock in viciously adhering to the contrary. It’s the same logic I applied in Goa, when I pretended to drown in the ocean just to see which of the girls on the beach would rescue me. Being resuscitated five minutes later by a burly gentleman giving me mouth-to-mouth was a sobering indication that I may have “over-sadfished”. In much the same way, kids may often find that no one has bothered to defend them, which can be highly demoralising.

Finally, we arrive at attention-seeking. In much the same way that Justin Beiber’s roast was less about him gleaning a deeper understanding of his own shortcomings and more about him enjoying the limelight, kids self-deprecate for the attention. Interesting to note here that boys are 1.3 times more likely than girls to engage in digital self-harm and this may have something to do with boys having fewer avenues to get attention.

So, in a nutshell, the world of bullying has only gotten worse and the parent you need to be having words with, is most probably yourself. Is there a silver lining? I’m not really sure. Despite our best efforts, bullying has stood the test of time, and this new phase of self-inflicting harm is so bizarre and counter-intuitive, we’re unlikely to have any real solutions soon. If anything, it all makes you long for the time that avoiding a bully was as simple as hiding under a desk.

Adhirath Sethi

This article was originally published in Arre