Over the past few years, where the internet makes distance learning and connectivity possible during catastrophic times like the present pandemic. However, the other side of the coin has a potentially harmful effect especially on teenagers, from the proliferation of fake news to online harassment. We have seen a massive increase in cyber abuse cases in India and Pakistan since the COVID-19 closure. Alone Pakistan has a tremendous 189% increase in cyber-harassment cases since April 2020. But these numbers are related to the victims who are virtually harassed by someone else, who might be known or unknown to them. What if the victim and the abuser would be the same?
Studies show that 13 percent to 18 percent of distressed teens physically injure themselves via cutting, burning or other forms of self-harm to cope with their pain. However, recent researches suggest that teenagers are now engaging in a newer form of self-aggression – Self-Cyberbullying. Digital Self-Harm is not a recent phenomenon, over the years the tendency of sending rude comments to themselves by teenagers over social media sites have increased rapidly.
Child psychologist Sheryl Gonzalez-Ziegler of Denver believes it is a growing problem among teens. One of her clients, whom she was counselling, anonymously cyberbullied herself by setting up ghost accounts on Instagram and posted mean comments about herself, saying things like, ‘I think you’re creepy’ and ‘Don’t sit next to me again.’ Ziegler asserted that ‘She said these things because she feared being mocked by her peers… She thought their teasing wouldn’t be so bad if she beat them to the punch.’ Ziegler further asserts that ‘teens who self-harm by cutting, kids who cyberbully themselves often suffer silently, feeling like they don’t have a friend or adult to confide in.’ Sometimes, if these teens do not receive health treatment or counselling on time, their feelings of loneliness might cause them to become depressed and sometimes ended up suicidal.
According to a survey, adolescents are bullying themselves online as a way to manage feelings of sadness and self-hatred and to seek attention from their friends and family. I can recall some instances from last year, where one parent approach me and shared the similar behaviour of her child. She believes that her child always curses herself for the things she never committed for example; posting rude comments on Facebook about how bad she is in sketching and art. In reality, her kid’s sketching was remarkable, and she never secured less than B grade in art.
Ellen Selkie, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the University of Michigan asserts that ridiculing oneself online is a way to vent and relieve negative emotions. Digital self-harm is often quite public, and the study found that seeking attention or a reaction was among the reasons participants gave for such behaviour. Another reason for teens to digitally harm themselves can be to see whether or not others are standing up for them. Sometimes this behaviour also leads some teens to Digital Dating abuse which the most common form of Cyberbullying.
How We (teachers, parents or any adults) Should Respond?
Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence highlights that ‘There is no silver bullet, and each child and family and situation is different. However, in every context, the very first line of help is always the parents/guardian. Parents should start a conversation with their kid by mentioning what they have noticed in their behaviour and using gentle prompts to gather a sense of what happened. Empathy and careful listening even a brief story of a time when the parent felt similarly can help move the conversation forward.