My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Digital Self-Harm and Other Acts of Self-Harassment

Sometimes, things aren’t what they appear to be. And, in those cases, jumping to the wrong conclusion can be a disservice to everyone.

After I first wrote about Formspring 7 months ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about teens who chose to respond to vicious or harassing questions (since only responses are ever posted publicly). Listening to teens, I had concluded that many out there were trying to prove that they were tough and could handle anything. And I’ve continued to hear that story in the field. But as I started looking into the negative commentary on teens’ pages, I felt like I didn’t have the full explanation.

A few weeks ago, I was with Sarahjane Sacchetti (the goddess of communications at Formspring) and we got to talking about what Formspring could do to help at-risk youth. She told me that they were working diligently to respond to upset parents who were outraged by anonymous bullying but that they had hit a stumbling block. As they started looking into specific cases of teens answering “anonymous” harassing questions, they started realizing that a number of vicious questions were posted by
the Formspring account owners themselves. They appeared on Formspring as anonymous but they were written by the owner while logged into their own account.[1] In other words, there are teens out there who are self-harassing by “anonymously” writing mean questions to themselves and then publicly answering them.

This should make you stop and swallow hard. And then sit back and realize that it’s not that surprising. What is happening on Formspring – and, likely, other sites where people can anonymously or pseudonymously post comments – can be understood as a form of digital self-harm. These teens are attacking themselves in a public forum while making it look like they’re being attacked by someone else. This is a very effective mechanism for getting attention. Thus far, I can work out three distinct explanations for why a teen might do this:

1. It’s a cry for help. Teens want their parents (and perhaps others in their lives) to notice them and pay attention to them, support them and validate them. They want these people to work diligently to stop the unstoppable but, more importantly, to spend time focused on helping them.

2. They want to look cool. In some schools, getting criticized is a sign of popularity. Simply put, you have to be cool to garner hate/jealousy/etc. By posting and responding to negative anonymous questions, it’s possible to look important by appearing to be cool enough to be attacked.

3. They’re trying to trigger compliments. When teens are anonymously attacked, their friends often jump in to say nice things in response to the negative commentary. Thus, a desirable side effect of attacks is a stream of positive support, compliments, and other loving messages.

All of these approaches are quite logical. By using the anonymous Q&A system, teens are able to make it appear like they’re getting attacked, which results in them getting attention in different ways. Of course, like any negative attention-seeking mechanism, it can also backfire if others gang up or if parents respond poorly.

It’s really important to highlight that digital self-harm is probably not the explanation behind the majority of negative anonymous comments out there, but the fact that it exists at all should be a warning to us all – and especially to parents who are trying to address bullying in their households. Supporting your daughter or son is not simply about finding the bully and prosecuting them or about going after their parents. Teens who are the victims of bullying – whether by a stranger, a peer, or themselves – are often in need of support, love, validation, and, most of all, healthy attention. I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve met who’ve been bullied by people at school who then turn to tell me about how their parents are absent – physically, mentally, or emotionally. And how often I hear teens complain about their parents trying to “fix” things by getting involved in all the wrong ways. Ways that make the dynamics around bullying so much worse. And it breaks my heart when I see teens respond to their parents’ helicoptering by engaging in self-harm practices through eating disorders or self-injury (“cutting”) as an attempt to gain some form of control over their lives. And 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.

There is no doubt that the teens years can be very rocky as teens try to figure out the social world around them. Navigating popularity processes and social hierarchies is extremely challenging on the psyche. The increasing amount of stress in the lives of teens – especially by achievement-focused parents – doesn’t help. And there are teens who respond to these stresses by lashing out – at others and at themselves. It’s important that we don’t just focus on the symptoms but that we get to the root of the problem. Why are teens lashing out at others and themselves? What’s going on in their lives that’s prompting them to respond this way? We can’t fix the symptoms – and trying to paint over them does absolutely no good. We need to get to the root of the problem. And, all too often, the root of the problem starts with us adults.

[1] An alternative explanation could be that someone else is hacking into their account to write anonymous questions to them. While this is possible, it’s unlikely.

First image credit: Krisztina Tordai

Second image credit: Dimitri N.

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14 comments to Digital Self-Harm and Other Acts of Self-Harassment

  • Meg

    Self harm isn’t always about “getting attention” or “looking cool” or “having people tell you you’re okay after all”. In my experience, as a former self-mutilator and friends with others, none of us had any of those motivations. For the most part, we were mortified by our actions and were terrified of what people’s responses would be. With good reason: when, despite all my efforts, a guy at school revealed a scar, he assumed I was an attention whore and gave me advice on how to actually kill myself.

    Either self-harm is the wrong metaphor (entirely possible; self-harm is usually private and these messages are not), or I think your understanding of the motivation is wrong.

    People who self-harm do it, in my experience, because their coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. Physical pain triggers a release of chemicals that genuinely do make you feel better, especially if you are dissociating. Self-harm can let you control at least one thing in your life (I tried to be anorexic, personally, and failed because I’d eat while I was dissociating.) It expresses un-expressible emotions that mere words can’t start to encompass, but if there was someone to listen in the first place you would probably choose a form that had a chance of actually communicating; self-harm isn’t it. If it is unsafe to turn anger on the people who deserve it, internalizing it and inflicting punishment on yourself can relieve the pressure.

    The last thing it is is a “cry for help.” That would undo the whole purpose of self-control, self-punishment and primal rage. When I’ve seen people ask for help after self-harming, it has been out of fear of that rage, and not a property of the self-harm. It would be like if these students went to someone and said, “I’m writing terrible things about myself”; that would be the cry for help. It is probably the case that kids who self-harm could use to have something about their life change, such that other coping mechanisms could possibly be sufficient, but that’s very different than seeking help.

    So if people who are writing mean questions about themselves are, in fact, practicing self-harm, I would think it is a coping mechanism. Maybe they think that’s what people think about them, that they are attempting to control the dialog about themselves. Maybe they are turning anger at other people on themselves, and expressing it in both call and response. Maybe we should ask them if we actually want to know what’s going on inside their head.

    If it isn’t a form of self-harm, then it could be about attention. The public nature of it certainly distinguishes the behavior of people I know who practiced self-harm. But in order for that to be the motivation, I would assume that the questions and answers they are posting don’t actually hurt the kids posting them in a particularly significant way. Which is interesting all on its own.

    I think adults haven’t been asking the right questions about bullying. I know that much of the literature on LGBT bullying and suicide suggests that suicide results when the grown ups around them explicitly or implicitly support the same messages kids are hearing from peers, and the same is true for gender-based bullying (and rapes, for that matter; they generally are prevalent when surrounding adults participate in or support victim-blaming.) I think kids have more perspective and resilience than adults are willing to give them credit for, and acknowledging the responsibility adults hold for bullying is much more challenging than simply blaming the suicides on a bunch of 13-year-olds.

  • An extremely interesting post, thank you! This is further evidence that young people’s offline lives are increasingly blending with their online ones. It is inevitable that their behaviours transfer. It is perhaps less likely that adults’ response behaviour will transfer in quite the same way or at the same rate, but this is what needs to happen if we are to avoid losing our grip on safeguarding these young people, using the strategies you quite rightly highlight.

  • Tasha

    Danah, I don’t know much about Formspring, but is it possible this is an extension of those ’100 things about me quizzes’ that goes around the email chains and facebook, you know ‘who was your first crush’, ‘what sexual acts have you done’, ‘what drugs have you done’ sort of questionaire (I remember when I was in school it was all online quizzes on some super-popular site that also sold essays for submission!).

    So, maybe they are asking themselves (through anonymous posting) the questions no one else asks, to show their ‘coolness’ (or whatever it is), and maybe to clarify some things in their own mind where blogging seems to introverted? It’s not uncool to answer a question posed by others and elicit a sympathetic response, but it might be cool to blog about it where no one is listening.

    Just a thought. :)

  • quinn

    I’m going to +1 what Meg said. This behavior is really interesting, and I haven’t got a good explanation for it, but it doesn’t fit the straightforward profile of self-harm.

    Self-harmers are usually reacting to physical trauma– people who have dealt with physical or sexual abuse, or (really fascinatingly to me), painful childhood diseases. They often respond to their emotions physically because they see their bodies as the source of the pain, the powerful emotions, and their way to self-control. The urge to self harm is often highly dissociative- a literally visceral state. Most people, and yeah, there are exceptions, aren’t in any state to articulate their thoughts or type when they’re dissociative. It’s also compulsive, treated by many people almost like a drug. That all said I’ve spent more time looking through case histories of self harm in adults than in children or teens.

    My instinct is that this behavior has to be more subtle and premeditated than self-harm, for which the deliberation is generally more wrapped up in ritual than in social/communicative complexities. My completely unqualified theory (partly drawn from the memories of myself and the other misfit kids I knew in school) is that it might have something to do with self-criticism as defense measure. If I’ve already said everything horrible that can be said, no one can use those things to hurt me; a teenage version of you can’t fire me, I quit.

  • Anna

    There’s a terrific book everyone should share with their parents, friends, and age-appropriate children: “Cut”, an intense and realistic account of cutting, treatment, and other disorders. It’s by Patricia McCormick and it’s the only book of its kind I’ve seen that deals with these issues in an informational and teen-friendly way. Highly recommended.

  • I received an email from a law enforcement officer who wants to remain anonymous but is allowing me to post his note. I think that this is an important reminder of how what we see online continues to mirror and magnify what we see offline:

    I can remember being called to an elementary school where a girl was receiving anonymous bullying/threatening notes in her desk. This continued over a period of time and became quite alarming to other students and parents who became aware of the situation. Upon very close examination of the notes, it became apparent to me that our victim was the one who was writing the notes. The positive to all of this was that a troubled girl now got the attention and help that she needed. It was unfortunate that she saw this as the only means to get that attention.

    It really made me wonder if there were signs that this was a little girl in need that went undetected; or even worse ignored.

    We may not want to think about the possibility that a student is engaging in digital self-harm or self-harassment, but it should be considered as a possibility. We are all sometimes guilty of immediately drawing a conclusion about “who might be responsible” when a bullying incident is reported to us. Taking a step back and looking at the whole big picture might be a better way to go about our investigation.

  • As much as my heart agree with what Meg said, once I sat down and thought, my head said something different. Although, yes, this isn’t self-harm as we might know it, I have observed people, both online and outside of the online sphere, deliberately engage in self-destructive actions to garner attentions, sympathy, or, and this is where is attaches to Danah’s perspective; to create around themselves a sort of negativity that could invoke negative self-image and result in self-harm. I’ve seen people engage with others in a typical teenage way of rebelling against one’s peers, but with the ulterior motive to make one’s life a misery and thus make it more interesting or moody. Obviously there’s a lot of popular culture which fetishises this sort of ‘special’ alone-ness. Of course, the problem is that this sort of behaviour could then trigger a real, terrifying alone-ness where the person that has deliberately isolated themselves has then burnt bridges.
    I suppose with Formspring then, this allows teens to construct this idea of an outside attacker without actually distancing anyone, though I doubt at any point that the psychological abuse they heap on themselves is anything less than damaging, seeing as how it will be their own insecurities…

  • Blair

    I find this blog post and these comments to be very interesting. I never knew how prevalent self-harassment was in the online world. It makes sense that these troubled teens are attacking themselves to get attention, to look cool, and to receive compliments. However, I more agree with Meg’s thought that this form of self-bullying is most likely a coping mechanism. While technology becomes further engrained in our society, we are beginning to see the effects it has on people at an emotional level. No longer is it customary to only get bullied in the school yard, but people are now getting attacked from all angles through the internet and other forms of mobile communication. I recently learned about a phenomenon called “happy slapping”. While this form of bullying is different from the self-bullying to which this blog refers to, it is yet another form of assault brought about by cellular devices (typically camera phones or smart phones). In the case of “happy slapping”, “someone assaults an unwitting victim while others record the assault” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_slapping). These forms of bullying, whether inflicted by oneself or caused by another person, represent the downsides of technology, and one might wonder what might come of it as technology continues to become more advanced. Will it be more controlled or will bullying, at some point, get out of hand?

  • jonnyz

    self harm (both online and offline) is a complex issue – there are no simple answers as to causes and we need to be wary of over simplification and generalisation. it is a highly individual expression with often multiple overlapping and interlinking “causes”. what is true as a causal element for one person is not necessarily a factor for another.

    having said that, it is an interesting aspect of self harm that the individual gets to be both victim and aggressor. power and control are often therefore dynamics that ought to be taken into account when looking to map the interplay of individual causes.

  • A local girl killed herself this past Wednesday. A Google search for her name returned a top result of a very ugly question about her being posted on Formspring to one of her friends. It turns out that the girl who was the subject of the question was the one who posed the question. I immediately thought of this post, which I first read at the beginning of the year. “Formspring” didn’t register then, but now I see this as an eerily precise description of something she did. Sadly, no one interpreted it as a precusor to something worse.

  • Gary McDaniel

    Great article danah.
    Here’s another theory: People who have experienced overwhelming trauma sometimes internalize that trauma as a “hurtful presence” making them in effect their own tormentor. Or as Elie Weisel put it “The greatest human trajedy is to suffer for having suffered”
    Most people have experienced this to a lesser extent as a self critical voice that upon closer examination sounds a lot like the voice of a critical parent. So an individual who grew up being called stupid or lazy criticizes themselves for being stupid or lazy when they are under stress. Someone who grew up in a more supportive family still might say things to themselves like: “what were you thinking” or “really, is that your best”.
    In the presence of trauma this internal critic can become a hurtful presence that continues the torment started by others. So the question is: are these students simply reenacting the harm that has been inflicted by others. Remembering, of course, that with trauma the reenactment can be symbolic, not necessarily literal.
    I should point out that this kind of traumatic reenactment is most commonly played out with others, but in the absence of meaningful and stable relationships it is not unusual to see the trauma dance danced alone.

  • ???

    This is really interesting.

    While reading this post i was reminded of some of the things I saw when researching the pro-Ana community for my undergrad thesis. It was not uncommon for the girls to write letters both to and from ‘Ana’. The letters “from” Ana were always absusive and harassing. (You’re fat. You’re so dumb. Why don’t you kill yourself already?” Etc etc). In other words I think there is evidence of this occurring elsewhere online too.

    What I found at the time was that the girls were doing this for a range of reasons, one of which was to imagine their illness as separate and distinct to their core “authentic” self . (Ironically therapists encourage the exact same thing). In one sense the process of ‘splitting’ reified the illness and have it separate form and meaning.

    I wonder if there are any correlations here or whether these are separate issues?

  • Philip Rose

    Interesting. It would seem that what you had to say in 2010 is beginning to show up now, in 2013. Your name has cropped up via a roundabout route of the BBC article in the UK (‘Cyber Self Harm’) after the Hannah Smith incident raised questions. Oh well – it took three years. I would be interested in what you think of the Amanda Todd case – deeper investigation shows a tendency, perhaps not to self-harm, but definitely to some form of damaging Internet addiction.

  • Cactus

    Gary, that’s how I’d see it, too…when I am feeling stressed and anxious and irritable, and when things aren’t going well, I’ll often start to say things to myself that are direct mirrors of things my parents, ex-bosses, ex-friends, ex-boyfriends, and bad teachers said at various points throughout my life. It can be a scary place, and it certainly sounds like that’s what these kids are doing.

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