Self harm moves into the cybersphere

I’m quite alarmed to read this article on the BBC website about the increase of ‘cyber self harming’ – where people troll or bully themselves via social media. It can consist of posting online questions about oneself deliberately in the expectation of receiving abusive replies from others; or can go so far as creating multiple profiles in order to post abusive comments to oneself. Why would someone do that?  Here are my thoughts…

I believe that social media offers channels for us to make what I call bids for connection – that is reaching out to other people in the hope of receiving attention, hopefully positive, that makes us feel good about ourselves.  As humans we need contact with others to make us feel – well – human.  We make bids for connection in our face to face relationships, but also – increasingly – online.  Think of the young person who posts pictures of him or herself in a new outfit, probably hoping to get some complimentary comments in return (of the “Wow,  look at you!” variety). But, sometimes the responses aren’t complimentary, they can be abusive, even threatening.  Sadly, online as in real life,  some people will seek out these negative responses or contacts, perhaps because they have low self esteem, perhaps because they have not received enough positive reinforcement in their life and negative contact feels ‘normal’ or is better than no contact at all.  However, there are probably additional and more complex factors involved with cyber self harm.

Self harming can be a way of validating painful feelings, externalising things that are difficult or painful to express.  Physical self harm is often a way to create a physical injury that symbolises internal pain. Cyber self harm may be a way to externalise the negative thoughts or opinions about oneself that one holds inside; seeing them on a screen somehow makes them more real – especially if they are ‘apparently’ written by someone else.  It causes the sufferer pain, albeit emotional pain rather than physical, and this time the emotional pain reinforces the negative feelings that were already there, which is worrying.

This is a relatively new phenomenon and needs more research, but it’s likely to grow amongst young people – the biggest group for physical self harm – as online activities increase and become the norm. Although there aren’t many studies or statistics yet, so far it would seem that boys seem to engage in cyber self harm more than girls, which is the opposite of physical self harm.   Do read the article if you want to know more.

If you or someone you know wants help or advice about any type of self harming please see or talk to someone you trust or your GP.


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