Privacy & Security

What Educators Should Know About Digital Self-Harm During Hybrid and Remote Learning

By Mark Lieberman — February 16, 2021 6 min read
Conceptual image of cyberbullying.

As educators continue to plow through the challenges of keeping school going during a pandemic that has lasted for nearly a full year, they should be looking out for signs of students engaging in digital self-harm, researchers say.

A recently published study led by a Florida International University researcher found that 1 in 10 students in the state said in a 2019 survey that they had cyberbullied themselves in the past year. Research on this specific type of cyberbullying remains thin, but efforts are underway to expand understanding of the issue.

Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, believes educators should know more about digital self-harm so they can be on alert for it and perhaps even help contribute to broader understanding of how it works and how it might be prevented.

Education Week asked Patchin to explain what we know so far about digital self-harm, and how educators should address it during a period when much more schooling than usual is happening online.

The following telephone interview was edited for length and clarity. (For more on digital self-harm, read Patchin’s blog post on the topic.)

What does this phenomenon look like?

It can happen on any platform. The earliest examples that we saw were on anonymous social media apps like Ask.Fm that encourage you to be anonymous, and don’t require you to be your real identity. The way the platform works is you have a profile, anonymous people ask you questions, when you reply they show up only in your feed. You could ask yourself why are you so stupid, why are you so ugly, etc. To be sure, somebody could set up a fake Instagram profile or fake Snapchat profile and use it to target somebody else or use it themselves. It’s basically when somebody anonymously makes hurtful comments or threats towards themselves in a public venue so that others can see it.

How did you first learn about this problem?

We became interested in this problem five or six years ago when we had heard a couple of examples of situations like this. In one high-profile situation, a 14-year-old girl in England had killed herself. One of the causes of that suicide was cyberbullying that had happened on a particular social media platform. When the authorities investigated, most of the hurtful messages that were being sent to her originated from her own computer, from her own bedroom. She had sent the messages to herself.

We had been studying cyberbullying among adolescents for probably a decade at that point, and we hadn’t considered that students would send hurtful messages for themselves. We looked around [to see] if anybody had done any research on it. There were a couple of blog posts speculating, but that was about it, so we decided to do it ourselves. We figured it would be a pretty rare phenomenon.

In 2016, we surveyed 5,500 12 to17-year-olds across the U.S., and included a couple of questions in that survey about if students had posted something hurtful about themselves online. To our surprise, we found the numbers were higher than we expected. Five or 6 percent of kids had done this. Boys were slightly more likely to do it than girls.

Among the kids who had done it, we asked them to tell us why they did. Most of the reasons given were what you’d expect: for attention, to see if anybody would help them, to see if anybody would do anything about it. Some said they did it because they were bored, or to be funny. More boys said [they did out of boredom or to be funny] than girls, which might explain the sex difference there. We replicated that [study] in 2019 and essentially found some of the same things, but we haven’t had a chance to publish those data.

What causes kids to engage in this kind of behavior?

We know some of the variables that are correlated, but we don’t know if x causes y. We know kids who participated in digital self-harm were significantly more likely to also have depressive symptoms, also participate in physical self-harm, also to have attempted suicide. We don’t know which came first. This is the ultimate question. Do kids get depressed, and then they post negative things online, or physically hurt themselves? Is it part of a constellation of things that happen at roughly the same time? There’s definitely a lot we still don’t know about those behaviors.

What effect might the pandemic be having on this behavior?

We’re trying to collect data in the next couple months, and hopefully we can include some of these questions. We know that kids are online more. Potentially that creates more opportunities for them. The other concern about remote learning, we’ve heard examples where students haven’t had access to resources at school such as school counselors or psychologists or school social workers. If a child is dealing with some issues, they are depressed, maybe they don’t have somebody that they can talk to because of remote learning. Therefore it might be a lot more difficult for them.

We study cyberbullying more broadly, and there’s a lot of speculation now about whether cyberbullying has increased. There’s no clear data, but there are some people that have reported seeing more reports of cyberbullying. We did see a little bit of an uptick early on, especially as particularly young kids were given access to technology they maybe didn’t have before. On the other hand, we know from our research over the last decade that most adolescent cyberbullying is connected to school relationships or even school bullying. If kids aren’t at school they’re not having those disagreements. We’ve had kids who have said remote learning is better for them because they don’t have to deal with bullies at school.

What can be done to prevent digital self-harm?

It is hard for a teacher or a parent to get to the bottom of this. From the standpoint of their role whether as an educator or a parent, if they learn about a child being cyberbullied, they need to investigate. They need to talk to the kids involved, report it to the website or app. If it is particularly bad, egregious, if there are threats of physical harm, it will be flagged by these apps. The apps can identify this pretty easily. Whether they’ll share that with you is a different question. They’ll share it with law enforcement, which is unfortunately where we often find out about these things, if there’s a pretty serious incident.

What we’ve found is, it doesn’t really matter who is doing the cyberbullying. You need to provide resources to who’s experiencing it. Whether you’re doing it to yourself or someone else is doing it to you, our goal should be to help you. That might be very practical things like showing you how to block a person from your account, collect evidence, report it to the apps. But maybe it is a cry for help or you do need some kind of counseling or other assistance.

Schools should open up an opportunity for students to report to them if they’re being mistreated in a way that affects the school environment. Whether having some online reporting mechanisms or a particular person that people can turn to, but then hopefully having some resources in the school whether through a counseling department or school psychologist who’s trained in online abuse behaviors.

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