Favourite Share

Cyber Self Harm

The internet is no bad thing. But what if people started using it to self-harm? Director of Selfharm.co.uk, Rachel Welch, uncovers a shocking new trend in young people's behaviour online.

 The internet is no bad thing. But what if people started using it to self-harm? Director of Selfharm.co.uk, Rachel Welch, uncovers a shocking new trend in young people's behaviour online.

 Ellie busily scrolls through Facebook after a frustrating day at school, reading multiple status updates from friends she only said goodbye to less than an hour ago. She ‘likes’ a photo of her niece recently posted by her sister-in-law, before adding ‘cuuuuuute <3’ in the comment box. After getting changed out of her uniform and fetching a drink, Ellie settles onto her bed and logs on to Ask.fm. Carefully and deliberately she posts a question: ‘What’s the best thing about me?’ before quickly signing out. Heart racing a little, Ellie logs back in, only this time she isn’t Ellie, she’s using a profile called Staceeyy. She finds her question and replies: ‘Nothing. You are nothing.’

We are all too familiar with the dangers of the internet, with headlines screaming statistics relating to cyber-bulling and grooming. Furthermore, we know only too well the prevalence of websites and forums encouraging young people into a dark world of pornography, self-harm, crime and even suicide. But recent reports suggest there may be a hidden danger not previously considered; a danger of young people using the virtual world to bully themselves, and elicit the help of unwitting strangers to assist them.

It almost seems absurd that someone might post abusive messages to themselves online, but that’s exactly what Ben found himself doing. At 16, Ben found himself reading posts on Facebook and felt tempted to chip in with comments he knew would be met with disagreement. He wasn’t looking to cause trouble; what Ben wanted was to be on the receiving end of what he considered was much-deserved abuse. Ben says it started by accident: ‘I was already online and was just feeling really awful. I saw that someone had posted something that I agreed with but lots of people didn’t. I commented and people started to be horrible; everyone was saying things that I felt were true and that’s what led me to do it more often.’ This type of behaviour is an extension of self-harm. It may not leave a visible injury in the way ‘conventional’ harming might, but it needs to be recognised as a real emotional danger to young people who already have a very fractured and damaged sense of self. As Ben describes: ‘It was a weird feeling, as I believed everything they were saying about me… It was all the feelings I had about myself being confirmed. In a way it felt good, it persuaded me I was as bad as I thought; I wasn’t imagining it.’

Posting inflammatory messages online in order to get a response may have previously been considered ‘trolling’, but as Ben demonstrates, behind a so-called ‘troll’ may in fact be a vulnerable young person longing to have others confirm what they wrongly believe to be true. Seeing comments on the internet which confirm how they feel about themselves validates how little they think they’re worth, and as we know only too well, the internet is full of people only happy to oblige with relatively little encouragement.

Another young person, Ellie, describes setting up multiple accounts and profiles across several different websites and having dozens of abusive conversations with herself. She says: ‘I knew it was me writing that stuff, but on the screen it wasn’t me. On the screen it was my mum or my best friend. The posts would say I was ugly, I was useless, I wasn’t loved… all the stuff in my head. If I saw it in black and white coming from ‘other people’ I knew it must be true. But it was exhausting to keep up with.’

Psychologically this form of emotional self-harm is very complex. It may involve a young person creating multiple accounts and profiles online, which demonstrates intent. Evidence of intent suggests the underlying feelings of worthlessness have been there for a while, and the sufferer will have reached a very unsettling point of struggling before finding a ‘solution’ in using the internet in this way. Individuals who physically harm themselves may have gone on a very similar journey, but while the blade provides relief for some, negative emotional reinforcements are what others find themselves craving. Just because this type of behaviour doesn’t leave an injury or fit what we’ve previously understood self-harm to look like doesn’t mean we should disregard it or pay less attention to it. We know that all self-harming behaviours are damaging, and we also know they can take many different forms and change rapidly - someone who is abusing themselves via the internet one day may be burning their skin next week, and equally, a young person engaging in hair-pulling may soon progress to a more emotional form of self-harm as described by Ben and Ellie.

In the same way physical self-harm can sometimes be detected, so too can emotional self-abuse. Ben says: ‘I never told anyone, but it was spotted by adults who asked what was going on. I never told them, I just said everything was fine as I wasn’t willing to accept I had a problem at the time. Lots of my friends just thought that I was getting bullied and tried to help, but I said that all was fine. I told them I could handle it.’ Ellie’s experiences of posting messages to herself also led friends to worry that she was being bullied, and some would even join in the threads to try and defend her. ‘It was awful,’ she says. ‘My friends were trying to protect me and stick up for me, so to keep it up I ended up posting nasty messages to them too. It was killing me seeing them get so angry on my behalf, and it was then that I knew I had to stop. It wasn’t about hurting other people, it was about hurting myself.’

While Ellie adopted a number of different personas in the virtual world, Ben’s behaviour involved inciting others in the wider online community to do the abusing for him. The latter is unique in that it involves a third party, which is not a common factor in physical self-harm. Harming is usually a very secretive behaviour and almost never involves anyone else. For those of us who may be prone to being lured into heated debates on various social networking sites, it’s quite alarming to think that you may in fact be contributing to something far more damaging than it appears on the surface.

Regardless of how the internet may be used for this kind of self-harm, the young people at the centre can adopt the victim role after being identified as a target for online bullying. When someone is a ‘victim’ they are able to rest and feel nurtured and supported by those around them who want to help; something they may find it difficult to otherwise ask for. In many respects this echoes how someone may be ‘looked after’ after an episode of cutting or other self-inflicted injury. In both cases, the nurturing satisfies either an unmet emotional need or other unresolved distress. The need for this kind of support and emotional fulfilment must not be underestimated or disregarded.


It will probably never be possible to know how many young people are using the internet in this way but like with all things, understanding prevalence doesn’t give us the tools to help. Statistics around physical self-harm are often very flawed for a number of reasons owing to definitions and samples, so it’s fair to say the scale of the problem may be significantly bigger than is thought. Encountering any young person being bullied online needs to be treated the same irrespective of who is behind the bullying, but here are a few starting points if it transpires that it may be a case of emotional self-harm:

1. The young person is likely to be hugely embarrassed or confused by what’s happening, so respect that. They’re not weird or crazy for using the internet in this way; they are hurting.

2. Look beyond the behaviour and focus on how they are feeling. How do they feel about themselves? What do they need from you? Why does using the internet in this way seem to be helping? All self-harm can be a trauma, so even if the behaviour stops it may take time for the emotional scars to fade.

3. Understand that for some, giving up the damaging aspect of the online world they’ve been so embedded in may be harder than you think. Ben describes how he needed support with this: ‘I came to realise that I didn’t need it, but I needed help to stop. I contacted a self-harm page on Facebook to ask if that’s what I was doing. It never occurred to me I might be self-harming but I can see now I was, and I needed as much help as anyone else.’ The internet has a powerful influence over young people, and none more so than when they’re feeling vulnerable or it’s filling a void.

4. Encourage the young person to talk about anyone they may have met online. It’s not impossible they may have forged some very damaging relationships with complete strangers.Emotionally vulnerable young people can be at real risk of grooming so support them to distance themselves from anyone they don’t know. They may need practical help such as deleting email addresses or creating a fresh Facebook page.

5. Use the internet for good! It isn’t a den of complete iniquity and using this as another reason to heap condemnation on the World Wide Web won’t change anything; we can’t go back and stop it being invented. Encourage them to find supportive communities where they can feel safe and engage honestly as themselves, and help search for appropriate websites. Use this as an opportunity to engage with your young person in a positive, constructive way.

6. Be honest and consistent in your approach – it’s alright not to understand but acknowledge it with your young people. Teenagers appreciate willing, humble honesty much more than a knowledgeable façade that is sure to slip eventually.

7. Ensure you are supported. No matter what the cause or behaviour you might be dealing with, the emotional struggles of your young people will hurt you too. This isn’t because you can’t cope, but because you care deeply. Take care of you.

8. Accept that recovery will involve more than you telling them how great you think they are. Find ways to build esteem that will lay firmer foundations, such as getting them involved with projects or events that will benefit others. Never underestimate the power of feeling needed and valued; it carries far more weight than hearing someone say it.

Neither Ben nor Ellie ever harmed themselves physically, but this may not always be the case. This form of self-abuse may act as a catalyst for physical injury and provide the motivation for it to continue. It may feel as addictive to some as cutting, burning or hair-pulling is to another, and so the recovery period may be protracted, with many relapses.

It’s hard to know for certain where the internet will take young people next. We’ve had damaging chat rooms, online grooming, and we’re in the grip of Facebook, Twitter and sites such as Ask.fm which seem to define popularity according to ‘friends’ and ‘followers’. There are few certainties in life other than the usual offerings of death and taxes, but the presence of the virtual world is undoubtedly the third. We cannot make it go away, we cannot necessarily change how young people choose to interact with it and we cannot particularly govern how it evolves. But, we can be a generation of youth workers who accept it for what it is, embrace it despite its failings and act positively to ensure we are proactive in making the hidden dangers ok to talk about. Let’s not create stigma around the way our young people use the internet. We need to package up our fears about online self-harm, pornography, crime, suicide and bullying and send them away to a virtual room 101. They’re not going to get there on their own.

« Back to the December issue

comments powered by Disqus