When teens bully themselves online

December 2nd, 2020

Being cyber bullied can be devastating– so why would people do it to themselves? We know some teens do use anonymous messaging or secret accounts to send themselves threats, insults, accusations, offensive questions, and worse. And it’s important to understand why.

This behaviour has been called ‘self-cyberbullying’ or ‘digital self-harm’. Researchers from Netsafe NZ define it as ‘the anonymous online posting or sharing of mean or negative online content about oneself’.

How common is it?

Surveys of 5,593 teens in the U.S. and 1,110 teens in New Zealand showed that around 1 in 20 said they had anonymously posted negative content about themselves online. A smaller study suggested the numbers might be higher – perhaps 15 per cent.

Of the teens who have attacked, threatened or insulted themselves anonymously online, between half and two-thirds have done it more than once.

Who does it?

It seems the age group most likely to engage in this behaviour are younger teens aged 12-15, with boys somewhat more likely to do it than girls.

One group of teens are at particular risk: teens who have been bullied online or at school in the past. For example, one U.S. study found that teens who had been cyber bullied by other people were 12 times more likely than their peers to post negative anonymous content about themselves.

Other teens more likely than average to send cyber bullying messages to themselves include teens who are going through depression, drug use, or self-harming behaviours, and teens who identify as LGBT.

Clearly, many of these teens are vulnerable and need our help.

Why do some teens attack themselves online?

There are many reasons why teens might post cruel content about themselves anonymously. They might want:

  • To get attention, sympathy or compliments from other people
  • To show they are tough enough to cope with bullying
  • To test how people will react – ‘Do they really care? Are they really my friends?’
  • As a joke
  • To start a fight
  • Because they are feeling depressed or self-hating
  • To act out bullying they’ve experienced from other people.
What can parents do?

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about this behaviour and how to respond to it. So far, it seems the following steps are best.

Start the conversation

Many teens feel embarrassed about this behaviour and won’t tell their parents voluntarily. However, parents can make it easier by talking to their teens regularly about what’s happening online, the things that can go wrong, and what we can do about it. Check out our tips on communicating with teens.

It can help to:

  • Use general language or hypotheticals – for example, ‘I’ve heard some kids send bullying messages to themselves online. Has that ever happened to anyone you know? What would you do if a friend did that?’
  • Don’t be judgemental. Make clear that posting negative content about yourself is not a good idea, but that you understand teens have reasons for doing it, and that they need love and support.
  • Be clear that if your kids ever did this, you would want them to ask for help, and you would focus on making sure they were all right.
Get all the facts

If you discover your teens have ‘cyber bullied themselves’, try to stay calm and find out everything that’s been going on.

Did your teens do this as a joke? Are they feeling insecure about their friendships? Are they lonely, angry or depressed? Have they been bullied by other people?

Some teens will feel fine about what happened and think it’s no big deal. Others may be struggling with serious problems. It’s important to get the full picture. You might start by asking questions such as:

  • ‘What prompted you to send that message? What else was happening at the time?’
  • ‘How did you feel while you were sending it?’
  • ‘How did other people react?’
  • ‘How did you feel about it afterwards?’
  • ‘How many times have you done this?’
Seek help if needed

If you have concerns about your child’s wellbeing, seek professional support. You might start with a trusted GP, psychologist, school wellbeing staff, or a confidential helpline such as Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, eheadspace, or Parentline.

Support your teens to build healthy relationships

Many teens who post anonymous negative content about themselves are struggling to build trusting, caring connections with other people.

You might talk your teens through these tips on ‘how to ask for help’, and keep supporting them to build positive friendships. Check out these tips from Raising Children Network.

And keep showing your teens plenty of care and attention. Remind them of the things they are good at, the times they’ve faced a challenge and succeeded, and all the reasons you love them.