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Look out for these real cries for help in the virtual world.

Using an alternate IP address to direct cruelties toward oneself.
Roasting oneself on Reddit.
Setting up a fictitious online identity, and hurling humiliating insults at that 'person.'.

Like cutting, it is a pressure relief-valve for pain.
Like Munchausen syndrome, it draws attention to oneself.
Like any disguised cry for help, it is a new way to interrupt negative feelings, low self-esteem, and the cycle of judging that spirals deeper and deeper into the psyche.

Researchers still know very little about this new mode of securing emotional support. But it is not just individuals who get taunted on the bus or are sitting alone in the cafeteria who turn to technology to cope with their insecurities, anxieties, and/or depression. Rather, new research coming out of Florida Atlantic University suggests that young people who appear to fit in, to have friends and perform satisfactorily in school – kids who don’t raise red flags to teachers or to parents – may be self-trolling and smearing their reputations online.

The study, conducted by Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health claims that nearly six percent of students admitted to posting something unkind about themselves online. In other words, approximately one in 20 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 had anonymously pilloried their own reputation. Of those who digitally self-harmed, just over half said they had done it only once, while approximately one third said they had done it several times. Unexpectedly, a whopping 13 percent – more than one in ten – said they had digitally self-harmed numerous times.

  • Boys were more likely to describe their behavior as a joke or way to get attention.
  • Girls often stated that they cyber self-harmed because they were depressed.
  • Students who didn't identify as heterosexual were three times more likely to cyberbully themselves.
  • Victims of cyberbullying were 12 times more likely to say negative things about themselves online than those who hadn't been bullied before.

Self cyber-assault may seem counter-intuitive, but adolescents who have created a reasonably successful social identity may have no outlet for their anxiety or depression, for abuses they are suffering at home, or for relentless self-judgments. Too much is at stake, socially, for them to express these emotions to peers, who may think them freaky or uncool, so they manage their feelings by foisting them onto a cyber alter-ego.Youth who are particularly at risk include those who:

  • feel lonely, depressed, or misunderstood
  • do not want to seem weird or ‘uncool’ to their friends
  • want to avoid talking about their feelings so as not to be branded childish or immature (acting ‘like a girl’—or a fag)
  • suffer abuse but are too afraid or ashamed to tell anyone

Fictitious online identities provide a 'safe forum.' They are not readily discoverable, or able to be outed. Self-trolling, on the other hand, allows for layers of meaning (for example, after a deprecating self-post one can, of course, say ‘only kidding – it was a joke.' Sound familiar?)

In a press release, lead author Dr. Sameer Hinduja cited the suicide of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old British girl who died in 2013. Initially, it was believed that she had been driven to suicide by cyber-bullying on the part of her peers. Further investigation revealed that she had written most of the negative posts to herself in the weeks leading up to her death. (The Daily Mail reports that in fact, two teenage girls used the apps and After School to anonymously post abusive comments about themselves leading up to their suicides.)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness contends that the impulse to self-harm isn’t uncommon in adolescents. A sign of emotional distress (something many young people feel as they begin to navigate new hormonal impulses, new social dynamics, and the increasing demands made on them) cyber self-harm can be linked to overwhelming feelings that the individual does not know how to handle (but feel they should know how to negotiate--others around them are managing.) High levels of frustration, anger, and pain may prompt a young person to “release” their emotions by cutting or self cyber-bullying. The subsequent shame and guilt elicited by these actions readily cycles back and increases the sense that emotions are out of control, which only feeds the need to again release their feelings in a secret way-- one that seems to work, for now…

Cyber self-harm is clearly a cry for help, and there are professional responses to this behavior. Unfortunately, the cry is exceedingly difficult to hear. The anonymity of cyberspace masks identities and makes the source of pain difficult to ascertain.

As with other forms of social aggression, our best resource in countering this behavior is the peer-group. But since they are precisely the group that self-bulliers are trying to deceive or elude, the youth cohort needs to rely on other ‘tells’ to identify their peers who may be struggling. More importantly, they need to believe it is their responsibility to be pro-active, should they become concerned.

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