The targets of online bullying are starting to become the perpetrators themselves.
6 percent of middle and high school students between the ages of 12 and 17 admitted to “self-cyberbullying” or the act of online and social media bullying where their intended target was themselves, according to a new study from Florida Atlantic University.
“We knew we had to study this empirically, and I was stunned to discover that about 1 in 20 middle- and high-school-age students have bullied themselves online,” said the study’s author, Dr. Sameer Hinduja. “This finding was totally unexpected, even though I’ve been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years.”
Hinduja, co-director of FAU’s Cyberbullying Research Center, said that the issue first started to gain attention in 2013 following the suicide of 14-year-old Hannah Smith, a teen in England who committed suicide after being the subject of harassing posts online. An investigation by police in England later determined that Smith herself was the author of the messages.
The study showed that the prevalence of digital self-harm was higher in boys(7 percent) than girls(5 percent). However, while boys admitted to doing it jokingly or for attention, girls told researchers they were depressed or psychologically hurt. The study also found that teens who identity as non-heterosexual were also three times more likely to engage in the behavior.
What concerns researchers, including Hinduja, is the link between self-harming acts and depression and suicide. The study found that teens who engaged in self-harming acts offline were significantly more likely to engage in digital self-harming acts, as were those who used drugs or had depressive symptoms.
“Prior research has shown that self-harm and depression are linked to increased risk for suicide and so, like physical self-harm and depression, we need to closely look at the possibility that digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts,” said Hinduja. “We need to refrain from demonizing those who bully, and come to terms with the troubling fact that in certain cases the aggressor and target may be one and the same. What is more, their self-cyberbullying behavior may indicate a deep need for social and clinical support.”