Teens & Digital Self-Harm on Instagram

Why Gen Z are using social media to engage in self-bullying behaviors and what Instagram is doing to combat it.

For the last two decades, any discussion about kids, teens and networked spaces has included a discussion about cyberbullying. And for a good reason: cyberbullying continues to be pervasive across social media apps and in online communities. A 2016 (Klonsky, E., Victor, S., & Saffer, B., 2014) study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 34% of middle and high school students have self-reported being cyberbullied.

However, there’s also a relatively new form of online bullying that’s beginning to flourish among teens called ‘digital self-harm.’ Digital self-harm is the act of secretly posting hurtful or bullying comments about yourself online. The reasons why teens engage in such behaviors are complicated but simply stated, digital self-harm gives teens an outlet for all the insecurities and self-loathing emotions they have been keeping in their heads.

In a way, it is a safety valve for teen emotions and insecurities. When teens use an alias to self-bullying on social media, they are using it as a way to reconcile their internal thoughts with the external perceptions of what others think of them. Digital self-harm, a form of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), is a way for teens to safely garner attention and receive messages of validation and emotional support from friends (Klonsky, et al., 2014).


“Everyone is going to have moments in his or her lives hating themselves; sometimes it helps posting about it online. People try to help you out and make you feel better. The internet might be a terrible place, but there [are] tons of people around the world who are willing to help you.” — 14-Year-Old, Male, Wisconsin (Patchin & Hinjinda, 2017).

Research conducted at Bridgewater State University (Englander, 2012) found that approximately 35% of those who self-bullied found the strategy ‘successful,’ in that “it helped them achieve what they wanted to achieve, they felt better because of it.” The Englander research found that while both males and females engaged in digital self-harm behaviors, their motivations were quite different.

For example, “girls did it to prove they could handle it, encourage others to worry or get attention from adults, while boys did it because they were mad at someone and wanted to start a fight (Englander, 2012).

How Common is Digital Self-Harm?

Research conducted in 2017 (Patchin and Hinduja) found that approximately 6% of students aged 12 to 17 had sent themselves anonymous hate, with boys more likely to engage in the behavior than girls and LGBT students nearly three times more likely to self-cyberbully. These rates mirror those of traditional forms of NSSI.

An NSSI study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Borracas et al., 2012) determined 8% of the 665 youths who were surveyed say they engaged in the form of NSSI, be it cutting, burning, self-bullying or hitting. The survey found a more extensive variation among genders, however than the latest study on digital self-harm: While 19% of ninth-grade girls reported some form, only 5% of ninth-grade boys did (Barrocas, Hankin, Young, & Abela, 2012).

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

While self-bullying behaviors do not directly correlate to offline self-harm and suicidal ideation, it should also be viewed by parents and educators as a red flag of more serious underlying mental health issues.

The 2016 suicide of a Texas teen was initially blamed on cyberbullying, but after an investigation by the Texas Rangers, it was discovered that the “bullying” was a case of digital-self harm (Ballor, 2016). As was the 2014 suicide of U.K. teen Hannah Smith, who posted self-bullying comments (BBC, 2014) on the popular teen platform, Ask.fm.

How Instagram Responds to Digital Self-Harm & NSSI Hashtags

During the annual Facebook F8 Developer Conference, Instagram announced that they had launched new anti-bullying & comment filtering AI technology that will automatically filter out comments that “harass or upset people in our community.

Posters at the Instagram Kindness Prom

We first got a sneak peek at this new filtering technology last summer when Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom sat down with CBS News to talk about how the social network is betting that limiting hate speech will encourage more expression on the platform.

CBS This Morning: How Instagram aims to filter out hate
“Is it free speech just to be mean to someone?” — Kevin Systrom, CEO Instagram

According to Instagram, “This new filter hides comments containing attacks on a person’s appearance or character, as well as threats to a person’s well-being or health. The bullying filter is on for our global community and can be disabled in the Comment Controls center in the app.”

Digital Self-Harm & NSSI Content as Social Contagion

As the number one social network for Gen Z teens, Instagram has been increasingly proactive in developing both technology and wellbeing programs that improve the lives of the teens. Instagram actively monitors NSSI-centric hashtags as a way to generate both a content advisory warning for other members of the community as well as offer mental health resources for the person viewing hashtags identified as encouraging dangerous behaviors.

Instagram Wellbeing & Intervention

Beyond using filters as a way to mitigate the social contagion of bullying, digital self-harm and NSSI content, Instagram is taking a proactive approach by allowing members of the Instagram community to anonymously report others whom they feel may be in need of mental health support or are posting NSSI hashtags or content.

The Self Harm Reporting feature on Instagram allows users to report a mental health concern to Instagram and send the user a message with mental health resources. These resources also display when someone visits a hashtag for a sensitive topic, like hashtags associated with self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide.

Instagram Self Harm Reporting Feature

However, it is important to note that, as the Instagram algorithm identifies these NSSI hashtags, teens begin to use ambiguous NSSI terms and hashtags to continue the self-bullying and NSSI behaviors. Teens also may create “Finstas” so that parents and trusted friends may not see their NSSI or digital self-harm activities.

It is commendable to see Instagram taking active steps towards creating and fostering a safer, kinder experience by addressing the mental health, safety, and well-being of their teen community.

Conclusion

While social platforms like Instagram are taking the lead on digital wellbeing for their teen community, it is essential to keep in mind that digital self-harm and other expressions of distress, may be signs of a more significant mental health issue.

Parents, teachers, and friends should always err on the side of safety and get directly involved if they feel that a person is involved in suicidal ideation or is in imminent danger. Keep in mind: NSSI and digital self-harm behaviors can be related to suicidal ideation.

For most teens who are involved in digital self-harm, it is part of an internal process to express their distress, trigger compliments and find a community of support. It is also a way for them to seek empathy, or use their social media feed as a mirror to clarify their self-perceptions.

As teens are increasingly turning to social media platforms, like Instagram, to talk about their mental health and find resources to help them through their personal struggles, it’s more important than ever that social media companies realize that they play an increasingly vital role and responsibility in promoting kindness and supporting the mental health of teens in their online communities.


If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741–741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.

Citations

Ballor, C. (2016). Texas Rangers investigating suicide of teen who was allegedly bullied for months. Dallas Morning News. Last accessed 26 May, 2018 from: https://www.dallasnews.com/news/news/2016/11/05/texas-rangers-investigating-suicide-teen-allegedly-bullied-months

Borracas, A., Hankin, B., Young, J., and Abela, J. (2012). Rates of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Youth: Age, Sex, and Behavioral Methods in a Community Sample. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Jul 2012, 130 (1) 39–45. Last accessed 18 May, 2018 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3382916/

BBC.com. Hannah Smith inquest: Teenager posted ‘online messages’ Last accessed 20 May, 2018 from: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leicestershire-27298627

Cyberbullying Research Center. (2017). 2016 Cyberbullying Data. Last accessed 26 May, 2018 from: https://cyberbullying.org/2016-cyberbullying-data

Englander, E. (2012). Digital Self-Harm: Frequency, Type, Motivation & Outcomes. Bridgewater State University. Last accessed 3 May, 2018 from: https://www.scribd.com/document/380105815/Digital-Self-Harm-Report

Klonsky, E., Victor, S., & Saffer, B. (2014). Nonsuicidal Self-Injury: What We Know and What We Need to Know. Volume: 59 issue: 11, page(s): 565–568. Journal of Canadian Psychiatry. Last accessed 28 April, 2018 from: https://doi.org/10.1177/070674371405901101

Ktena, N. (2018). These teens secretly trolled themselves. BBC Three. Last accessed 22 May, 2018 from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/05e9991d-4713-4ad4-b9af-eecd47d7dfd7

Moreno, M., Ton, A., Selkie, E. and Evans, Y. (2015). Secret Society 123: Understanding the Language of Self-Harm on Instagram. Volume 58 , Issue 1 , 78–84. Journal of Adolescent Health. Last accessed 20 April, 2018 from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1054139X15003717

Patchin, J. and Hinduja, S. (2017). Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents, Journal of Adolescent Health. Volume 61 , Issue 6 , 761–766. Last accessed 25 May, 2018 from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1054139X17303130