Digital self harmLauren Cierzan

These teens secretly trolled themselves online

It’s called ‘digital self-harm'

Natalie Ktena

"Nobody cares what you think. Just deactivate your account. No one likes your posts, and you’re a waste of everyone’s time."

These are messages that Julian* received on social media back when he was a teenager. They are undoubtedly cruel – but the most shocking part is that they didn’t come from his friends or followers, they were sent by Julian himself.

He was engaging in ‘digital self-harm’ - the act of secretly sending yourself hurtful messages online.

Cyber-bullying is of course, nothing new, and there's plenty of research which highlights just how devastating it can be to the victim. In fact, a study in 2016 showed the number of children and young people seeking counselling for online bullying had increased by 88% in just five years.

Yet there has been little research into self-cyberbullying or auto-trolling as it’s also known. In what appears to be only the second study of its kind, US research from 2017 found that approximately 6% of students aged 12 to 17 had sent themselves anonymous hate, with boys more likely to engage in the behaviour than girls and LGBT students nearly three times more likely to self-cyberbully. But it's not just the stats that are concerning, but the messages themselves. 

These can range from people calling themselves “ugly” and “useless”, to saying, “You should hang yourself. You’re pathetic and don’t deserve to be alive.”

Given how cruel these messages are, it’s easy to imagine people being distraught to find them in their social media feeds. So why is it that people - like Julian - would deliberately write those messages, and post them on their own social media profiles?

“I started because I saw other people on Tumblr getting these anon hate messages,” explains Julian, who is now a 22-year-old university student in London. “They were quite popular so their followers would really support them through it and send them nice messages. I didn’t have many followers at the time so I thought sending myself a hate message might be a good way to get attention.”

BBC Cyber SH 2 RevisedLauren Cierzan

Julian was 15 years old when he first cyber-bullied himself on Tumblr. He was feeling vulnerable after a fight with a friend, and wrote himself messages telling him to deactivate his account and that nobody liked his posts.

“It was kind of a way to gain sympathy from my friend so that they just wouldn’t hate me at the time,” he says.

Julian's explanation as to why he wrote the messages chimes with research carried out in 2012. That study showed young people were most likely to digitally self-harm in order to get the attention of a peer. The hope would be that the messages would either trigger a torrent of compliments from sympathetic followers, or they could act as a sort of testing ground to work out what others think of them.

Julian’s anonymous hate message worked. His friend felt bad for him, and asked him if he was OK - as did other people he didn’t even know particularly well.

“A bunch of people I was friends with online would say, ‘Oh don’t listen to the hate’. And then that kind of gave me this satisfaction, like when someone likes your post on Instagram. It gave me that same feeling.” He pauses, then says: “I think it can become a bit of an addiction.”

This is common with digital self-harm. The 2012 study found that approximately 35% of those who self-cyberbullied found the strategy ‘successful’, in that “it helped them achieve what they wanted to achieve, they felt better because of it".

For Sophie*, 19, sending anonymous hate was a way to express the things about herself she felt otherwise unable to say.

“I always seemed like a confident and happy person,” explains Sophie, who is currently studying abroad. “But I also wanted people to know that I couldn’t always be OK because I was secretly dealing with really bad anxiety.”

BBC Cyber SH 3 Revised LightLauren Cierzan

She didn’t want to bring up her anxiety with her friends because she felt “nobody really cared what she had to say". Instead, she went onto her Tumblr and sent herself an anonymous message saying: "Saw you crying in the toilets at school. Everyone knows you’re just attention seeking."

Sophie then responded to the message herself, with a 1,000 word post talking about her anxiety. Immediately, she had friends from school telling her how “brave” and “cool” it was for her to be so open about her anxiety.

“I thought that if I posted that myself out of the blue, people would be like, ‘Who are you trying to be? Nobody cares what you think,’” she says. “I felt like I didn’t have a platform unless someone opened the conversation for me. So then I was like, ‘Who better to open the conversation than me?’”

Read more about mental health:

Digital self-harmers like Sophie can end up getting the results they want, whether that's more attention or more respect, but it can also be a sign of more serious problems.

One tragic case that could be an example of this is that of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire who killed herself in 2013. Her father believed she was being cyberbullied after seeing cruel messages sent to her on social media, but an inquest discovered strong evidence that she had posted the messages herself.

While over in Texas, another young girl, Natalie Natividad, was 15 when she took her own life in 2016. She had allegedly been bullied heavily in real life, and online. But an investigation discovered she had been sending messages to herself online - saying she was ‘ugly’ and that she should kill herself.

The recent research suggests that digital self-harm can be linked to mental health issues. Justin Patchin, a criminal justice professor in the US and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre, was behind the 2017 study into self-cyberbullying.

His survey of just over 5,500 American students found that those who reported being depressed were approximately five times more likely to be involved in digital self-harm, while those who said they had engaged in offline self-harm were nearly three times more likely to self-cyberbully.

“We wanted to link digital forms of self-harm with off-line self-harm, depression and suicidal ideation and, as expected, we found that they are all connected,” he says. But he doesn’t yet know what comes first. “So for example, does someone get depressed, say mean things about themselves online and then consider suicide? Or do they consider suicide, and then the physical and digital self-harm happen at the same time?”

Until more is known about the triggers for digital self-harm, it’s difficult for experts like Justin to speculate about when the right time might be to step in. But he is trying to work with social media sites, apps and internet service providers to identify vulnerable digital self-harmers.

BBC Cyber SH 1Lauren Cierzan

He wants these parties to check to see if profiles and messages are sent from the same IP address - meaning they are writing on their own newsfeeds - and then potentially contact the user or simply just show them ads for counsellors and relevant support.

There is still not enough data to show how widespread digital self-harm is internationally - something else Justin is hoping to change in the future. Both Sophie and Julian have noticed it among their friends and peers.

“I’d say a lot of people do it, but not a majority if that makes sense,” says Julian. “Sometimes I see it on Twitter. Because I went through it myself I can tell when someone else is doing it to themselves." How can he tell? He believes that "no one cares that much about someone else to send so many constant messages, especially when they don’t have that many followers" - though of course, many people do find themselves victims of cyberbullying regardless of their follower count. "Obviously, you don’t want to point it out, because you know how they’re feeling,” Julian adds.

Neither Julian nor Sophie digitally self-harm anymore, but both identified as depressive when they were younger so they do believe it can be a sign that there are deeper issues at play.

“I think that if you notice that someone is sending themselves these types of messages, you should talk to them and ask what’s going on," says Sophie, who has never been suicidal but has struggled with depression. “Because I don’t think it’s always going to come from the same place where it came from for me. I think a lot of people might just genuinely feel this way about themselves. I’ve always struggled to be happy, but I’ve never not valued myself.

“But there are people who genuinely don’t know how to value themselves and then these types of messages could be a cry for help. I don’t think there’s anything to lose in just being like, ‘Hey, are you OK?’”

Digital self-harm may be a cry for help, but only further study will reveal the best way to battle the behaviour. One thing is certain though - for those staring at a troll in the mirror, they’re going to need more than a block button to beat the bully.

*Names have been changed.

Information and support for mental health issues is available from these organisations. 

This article was originally published on 16 May 2018.