Digital Self Harm

The interface between human nature and technology.

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Little girl at desk using iPad.

As a professional therapist, I’ve been fascinated by the interface between human nature and digital technology; how people shape media and how technology returns the favor. In 2015, I squirreled away a CNN article that caught my eye – “Teens spend a ‘mind-boggling’ 9 hours a day using media, report says.”[i] The writer, Kelly Wallace, observed, “Let’s just put nine hours in context for a second. That’s more time than teens typically spend sleeping, and more time than they spend with their parents and teachers.” The article went on to quote James Steyer, chief executive officer and founder of Common Sense Media, who did the study: “It just shows you that these kids live in this massive 24/7 digital media technology world, and it’s shaping every aspect of their life. They spend far more time with media technology than any other thing in their life. This is the dominant intermediary in their life.”[ii] At the end of 2016, an AP-NORC Poll of Social Media, Messaging App and Video Use Among Americans 13-17 found that 94 percent of teens used social media platforms.[iii] Dominant and pervasive.

At the end of 2017, CBS News reported a “troubling trend” out of the UK.[iv] University of Manchester researchers looked at the behaviors of almost 17,000 “patients between the ages of 10 and 19 who had harmed themselves between 2001 and 2014.”[v] They found a 68 percent increase among girls ages 13 to 16 between 2011 and 2014. Self-harm was defined as drug overdose, most common, followed by cutting, self-poisonings, and other types of self-harm such as hanging, suffocation, jumping and scalding. One of the possible explanations for this jump in self-harm was the rise in teen use of social media.

JAMA research (Journal of the American Medical Association) found a similar trend with self-harm rates in the United States climbing 18.8 percent annually from 2009 to 2015 among girls ages 10 to 14. [vi] Again, people began to look to social media as a possible contributing factor to the rise because self-harm is a predictor of suicide. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the suicide rate for females aged 15-19 doubled between 2007 to 2015 and was the highest its been since the reporting period started in 1975.[vii]

I can understand how media has become “the dominant intermediary” in the lives of teens, as a therapist and as a father of teenagers. However, I’ll admit; I didn’t see a disturbing confluence between traditional self-harm and media technology that surfaced this week in a professional newsletter I get. Among the clinical offerings was a study on digital self-harm, which caught me by surprise. The newsletter highlighted research, done at the end of 2016, by Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, who defined digital self-harm as “when an individual creates an online account and uses it to anonymously send hurtful messages or threats to oneself.”[viii] Looking at almost 5,600 American middle and high school students (ages 12-17), they found 7.1 percent of males and 5.3 percent of females reported engaging in digital self-harm.

The term, digital self-harm, is credited to blogger, Danah Boyd, who first wrote about seeing this phenomenon back in 2010. She said then, “it scares me to think that a digital equivalent is brewing, a form of digital self-harm where words can be as sharp as knives and are directed at oneself.”[ix] Boyd heard three themes from kids engaged in digital self-harm; they wanted help, they wanted notice, even negative, and they wanted people to rise to their defense.[x] Reseachers Patchin and Hinduja identified motivations of self-hate, attention-seeking, depression, to be “funny,” and “to see if anyone would react.”

Kids have many reasons why they choose to self-harm, digital or not. Now, one more reason for adults to pay attention, “react,” and intervene when these digital natives send out signals they’re in over their heads.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE
and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years
ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities
for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center •
A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington,
creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health
issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and











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