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Cyber Self-Harm

What is it?

An emerging phenomenon in the digital community, behaviour dubbed “cyber self-harm” involves abusive messages and insults being directed by the sender at themselves, often through anonymous platforms. It is important to remember that this behaviour is far more unusual than instances of cyberbullying from others, but is worth noting.

The most common platforms for this kind of abuse are those where users can send anonymous comments, which makes it easier to direct insults towards your own profile without the complication of creating fake accounts, although some people will go further and do this. This could include anonymous comment sites such as Yik Yak and Whisper, which have recently become very popular among young people and college students in particular. The most widely reported site for problems is Ask.fm, with the suicide of teenager Hannah Smith highlighting the issue, as well as Tumblr and Formspring, which also allow anonymous comments. For more information about these sites, visit our Social Networks and Apps section in the Help Centre.

the risk to teens

Cyber self-harm is not necessarily linked to physical self-harm, but could be. Rachel Welch, director of Selfharm.co.uk says:

“This form of self-abuse may act as a catalyst for physical injury and provide the motivation for it to continue. It may feel as addictive to some as cutting, burning or hair-pulling is to another, and so the recovery period may be protracted, with many relapses.”

Hannah Smith

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Hannah Smith was described as an “intelligent, bright, clever and bubbly” girl. She was found hanged in her bedroom by her sister last summer. Her family believed her to be the victim of an intense and vicious hate campaign on the site Ask.fm, during which she was called a slut, told to drink bleach and encouraged to kill herself.

Hannah’s family called for the owners of the site to be accountable and Ask.fm’s founders said they would name the anonymous trolls who targeted Hannah. After investigation into her accounts, they found that while there were a handful of messages from trolls, 98% of the hateful messages were posted by the teen herself.

Police scrutiny of her laptop and IP addresses revealed the same evidence, that Hannah had been posting the messages. The teen had been a target for bullies offline, having her eczema mocked and her coat glued to a chair.