Digital Self-Harm Overview: Causes and Interventions

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 8
Words: 2233
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: School


Self-harm is a crucial modern problem that has to be addressed by both society and the government. The main reason for perceiving self-harm as a negative phenomenon is the presence of multiple risks that could affect adolescents. The method of self-aggression that is displayed via digital environments becomes more and more frequent (Fraga, 2021). Overall, digital self-harm occurs when an individual posts certain negative content regarding themselves, either pseudonymously or anonymously. This type of aggression is not linked to physical harm in any way since mental health represents the key objective of digital self-harm. In the literature, there are three most popular explanations of why adolescents could resort to digital self-harm: emotional regulation, defense mechanism, and attention-seeking behaviors (Pater & Mynatt, 2017). The processes of bullying and victimization play an important part in the development of digital self-harm because adolescents have to externalize their negative emotions and prevent others from insulting them in the future. The current paper is going to present a detailed overview of what could be the characteristics predicting self-harm behaviors and how the public health system could respond to this threat.

Background of the Study

In the case of digital self-harm, one of the most important predictors outlined by researchers is the development of communicative, positive relationships with parents. According to Fraga (2021), self-harm transpires when adolescents do not feel the support coming from their peers and relatives. This is when they become more interested in limiting their presence in others’ lives and discussing emotions and real-life situations. Digital self-harm also represents an opportunity to educate adolescents on how they could prevent the most negative outcomes of their behaviors while also giving signs to someone else. Parents and teachers cannot underestimate their role in this situation, especially knowing that adolescents choose to self-harm out of despair and lack of control over their lives (Patchin & Hinduja, 2017). Some of the common indicators of a self-harming adolescent are increased anxiety, lack of passion, stronger tension in interpersonal relationships. In the words of Pater and Mynatt (2017), parents also tend to utilize spyware in order to monitor their children’s online activity and see if there is something suspicious or threatening.

The problem with digital self-harm behaviors is that children are much more well-versed in terms of technology than their parents. Therefore, even if the latter choose to go through their children’s phones, they will have trouble understanding what is going on due to the lack of knowledge concerning the slang or novel concepts (Townsend, 2019). The problem of digital self-harm is that parents cannot be fully aware of certain issues. Also, it may be safe to say that peers play a crucial role in one’s predisposition to utilizing technology because younger generations tend to be significantly more tech-savvy (Ougrin & Asarnow, 2018). Additional background information might be required to differentiate between self-harm and actual bullying. The presence of professional services provided by the public health system might actually help young people reduce the stigma and take care of their mental well-being (Fraga, 2021). Nevertheless, more recommendations are needed because the prevalence of digital self-harm continues to grow.

Method and Data Collection

In order to collect the data, the author of the paper addressed a total of ten articles on the subject of digital self-harm and conducted a detailed analysis of presented evidence with the intention of gaining more insight into motivations and outcomes. The idea behind the collection of the data was to present self-harm as a behavior and not a mental health disorder or illness. The author expected this approach to help them realize the key aspects of self-harm behaviors and explain how the public health system could change its approach to the problem to improve the state of affairs. It was decided to pick at least ten articles to make the research paper as representative as possible and indicate how this majorly unexplored phenomenon could affect the future lives of today’s adolescents. It was decided not to relate to any self-reported data and only consult evidence from existing research articles. Also, the researcher focused on developing a list of possible recommendations that could be employed by parents and educators facing adolescents with a predisposition to digital self-harming behaviors.


It was found from the literature on the subject that the media is the biggest contributor to digital self-harm among adolescents. Despite some information being cleverly filtered, media coverage often bypasses the age limit of viewers and strict regulations in order to reach a larger number of individuals (Borschmann & Kinner, 2019). This actually shows that current cyber legislation lacks detail regarding the sensitive issue of digital self-harm and does not attract parents and educators to the problem of closing the gap between concerns and solutions. Evidence from Latif et al. (2017) suggested that more adolescents should be encouraged to externalize their behaviors in a peaceful manner while also communicating with people they can trust. On a long-term scale, this approach might contribute to the advent of improved suicide prevention strategies and promote certain well-being principles among adults (Patchin & Hinduja, 2017). Intense monitoring of adolescent behaviors should become the new norm across modern societies, especially with the lack of laws and initiatives protecting younger users of the Internet who resort to digital self-harm.

Another crucial outcome of the current research is that there are multiple applications online that either promote or support cyberbullying despite allegedly fighting against it. The lack of proper control over the Internet shows how communities do not care about the outcomes of self-harm and mostly perceive such behaviors as an attempt to draw attention (Cliffe et al., 2021). The public health system does not develop enough activities that could motivate adolescents to step away from digital self-harm and advocate for a friendlier online environment. In the words of Witt et al. (2017), website restrictions are not going to become a sufficient measure to predict and prevent self-harm because adverse consequences are believed to be surreal and unachievable. It was also mentioned that more adolescents nowadays might be interested in previously unavailable activities, such as sexting, online bullying, or vulgar jokes (Meldrum et al., 2020; Townsend, 2019). This is a specific concern for many countries across the globe because self-harming behaviors stemming from the ones mentioned above could drastically increase the occurrence rate of suicides among younger populations.

Even in the cases where abuse represents a self-harming cyberactivity, adolescents still have to cope with traumatizing experiences that cannot be replicated. The lack of external participation does not reduce the amount of guilt and shame that adolescents put on themselves (Twenge et al., 2020). Therefore, the literature on the subject defines digital self-harm as a behavior that is most likely to represent a response to perpetrators that basically deteriorates an adolescent’s mental health and well-being. Ougrin and Asarnow (2018) claim that the lack of punishment that follows self-harm behaviors broadens the horizons of online events available to younger populations and motivates them to engage in more similar activities. The increasing accessibility of online resources regarding suicide represents another crucial threat that cannot be underestimated since the government and the public health system could join their efforts to influence suicide attempts among adolescents (Pater & Mynatt, 2017). Ultimately, self-harm behaviors cannot be associated with any positive health outcomes because digital space creates numerous obstacles while also containing quite a few advantages for policymakers.


Based on the information obtained within the framework of the current paper, it may be safe to conclude that digital self-harm is an oblivious challenge that has not been covered adequately. The key problem with it is that there are no proper guidelines or restrictions that would help improve public health initiatives and avert adolescents from engaging in self-harm. The trend is rather damaging because digital self-harm cannot be disconnected from suicidal behaviors and real-life self-harm (Borschmann & Kinner, 2019; Townsend, 2019). With this information in mind, policymakers should conduct further research in the area in order to see how they could battle the digital extension of a real-life issue while appealing to public health representatives, parents, and adolescents themselves. Proper management of digital self-harm would require the respective actors to come up with comprehensive recommendations (see Table 1 for more details) and help adolescents overcome the urge for self-harm (Meldrum et al., 2020; Ougrin & Asarnow, 2018). A thoughtful reformulation of preventive measures may be required as well because public health stakeholders can be unaware of the challenges and problematic consequences of addressing digital self-harm.

Table 1. Potential recommendations for public health stakeholders.

Recommendations Additional Prevention Measures
Self-harm assessment among individuals with mental health issues and/or substance abuse problems Picking and researching appropriate interventions and identifying additional risk factors causing digital self-harm
Removal of potential sources of self-harm behaviors Digital tools that can be utilized to cause self-harm have to be restricted to a reasonable extent in order to create a safer environment
Regular contact with the adolescents engaging in self-harm behaviors Encourage individuals to speak out and socialize more often with the intention of limiting the amount of time spent online for the sake of live communication with peers and family
Addressing availability of illicit substances (tobacco, alcohol, drugs) Public health should aim at stricter policies that would limit illicit substances being sold to adolescents; substance abuse should also be monitored at home
Introduction of school-based interventions and a problem-solving approach More adolescents should be involved in life-skill training sessions that would allow them to overcome the most common challenges and cope with adolescent life; school interventions should be focused on the possibilities of decreasing the occurrence of suicide among adolescents and release training workshops for the whole family
The media should be more careful in terms of how it presents self-harm cases and suicide reports This may be required to mediate the number of copycat suicides and follow a stricter guideline intended to regulate activity on social media
Digital self-harm behaviors should be reviewed in hospitals in the worst cases Hospitalization may be one of the few means of limiting an adolescent and giving them less digital freedom with the intention of evaluating mental health issues, limiting the number of potential conflicts, and reducing the accessibility of means of committing suicide

A much more problematic situation might arise when one chooses to determine if digital self-harm has actually caused any real-life implications. The majority of issues associated with this phenomenon mostly revolve around victimization and misunderstanding rather than rely on an adolescent’s desire to harm themselves (Pater & Mynatt, 2017). This finding also shows that support services might be displaying bias toward adolescents. That would spark even more motivation to engage in self-harm among the target population and give rise to a multitude of collateral effects. The distress linked to digital self-harm cannot be described as omnipresent, but its paraphernalia are discussed in the literature on the subject in rich detail (Latif et al., 2017; Twenge et al., 2020). Society does not talk much about the impact of digital self-harm on adolescents, which makes it harder for young people to voice their concerns and achieve better outcomes for themselves. Instead of completely limiting adolescents’ access to technology, public health executives could find ways to promote the therapeutic roles of digital instruments when pondering upon the notion of self-harm.


Nowadays, internet safety is more than just a parents’ problem because the whole society needs to know how it could prevent negative outcomes in the victims of digital self-harm. Even though adolescents tend to utilize the Internet to remain informed and socialize, there are many more possible options that extend the existing list of activities. Potential misuse of technologies places adolescents under serious pressure. This happens because of digital communications being infectiously damaging in terms of how young people perceive bullying, abuse, and other adverse behaviors that can be translated into an online environment. Existing research does not validate the existence of any consistent character traits that would predict digital self-harm. Accordingly, the public health system should be more than partially responsible for the well-being and online behaviors of adolescents. The fact that practically anyone may be subject to cyberbullying and abuse shows how little attention the problem receives across the globe at the moment. Awareness-raising programs should be developed and deployed in order to reduce the occurrence of self-harm and help adolescents understand their behaviors better.

Everyday experiences for adolescents having to cope with digital self-harm can also be described through the prism of risks that accompany peer pressure and improper parenting. Thus, increased awareness represents only a part of the required strategy since adolescents themselves cannot serve as a solution to the problem. There should be activities directed by the public health system and the government revolving around the values of self-promotion and self-presentation. With these in mind, adolescents will have more chances to avoid cyberbullying and self-harm behaviors that might lead them to suicide. The fact that it becomes easier to achieve complete anonymity online also proves that the World Health Organization should participate more actively in preventing digital self-harm in adolescents. The ever-increasing volume of negative content that is posted online has to be monitored by all possible stakeholders in order to identify the data that contributes to most online aggression. In the future, studies have to be completed to learn more about how adolescents could be taught to avoid digital self-harm and engage in positive behaviors.


Borschmann, R., & Kinner, S. A. (2019). Responding to the rising prevalence of self-harm. The Lancet Psychiatry, 6(7), 548-549. Web.

Cliffe, B., Tingley, J., Greenhalgh, I., & Stallard, P. (2021). Mobile health interventions for self-harm: Scoping review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 23(4), 1-17. Web.

Fraga, J. (2021). Digital self-harm: What to do when kids cyberbully themselves? The Washington Post. Web.

Latif, A., Carter, T., Rychwalska-Brown, L., Wharrad, H., & Manning, J. (2017). Co-producing a digital educational programme for registered children’s nurses to improve care of children and young people admitted with self-harm. Journal of Child Health Care, 21(2), 191-200. Web.

Meldrum, R. C., Patchin, J. W., Young, J. T., & Hinduja, S. (2020). Bullying victimization, negative emotions, and digital self-harm: Testing a theoretical model of indirect effects. Deviant Behavior, 1-19. Web.

Ougrin, D., & Asarnow, J. R. (2018). The end of family therapy for self-harm, or a new beginning? The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(3), 188-189. Web.

Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2017). Digital self-harm among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(6), 761-766. Web.

Pater, J., & Mynatt, E. (2017). Defining digital self-harm. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (pp. 1501-1513). Association for Computing Machinery. Web.

Townsend, E. (2019). Time to take self-harm in young people seriously. The Lancet Psychiatry, 6(4), 279-280. Web.

Twenge, J. M., Haidt, J., Joiner, T. E., & Campbell, W. K. (2020). Underestimating digital media harm. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(4), 346-348. Web.

Witt, K., Spittal, M. J., Carter, G., Pirkis, J., Hetrick, S., Currier, D.,… & Milner, A. (2017). Effectiveness of online and mobile telephone applications (‘apps’) for the self-management of suicidal ideation and self-harm: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1-18. Web.