Friday, December 17, 2010

Cyber self-harm?

This recent post by internet relationship extraordinaire danah boyd has attracted a lot of attention -- and with good reason. There has been extensive media coverage on cyberbulling these days; just a quick search on google news brought me stories from Montana, New York, and even Spain posted in just the last few hours. But what boyd and online quiz builder Formspring have uncovered (or at least made public) is something alarming, but perhaps not that surprising:

There are teens out there that bullying themselves online.

boyd as dubbed this "digital self-harm" but comments from readers criticize this term because physical self-harm is often motivated by the relief that follows after experiencing actual pain, clearly not happening online. But, no matter the term used, people are starting to come up with motivations/rationales as to why such behavior would occur. boyd's reasons from her article include a cry for help, to be cool, and to trigger compliments. Anne Collier, in her most recent issue of Net Family News appears to support the "cry for help" theory more strongly than the others.

However, to me, this behavior is somewhat parallel to some of the behaviors found in some persons who deal with borderline personality disorder, or some other personality disorder. These conditions affect approximately 2% of US adults, typically young women, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Such mental health conditions are characterized by unstable, volatile social relationships, and impulsiveness. My Mayo Clinic introduces personality disorders with this explanation:

"A personality disorder is a type of mental illness in which you have trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people — including yourself."

To me, there is a lot of commonality between someone with personality disorder and someone who would post negative comments about herself and await either verification or contradiction.

Now, I am not saying that all persons who engage in "digital self harm" have personality disorder, or any mental health diagnosis for that matter. But, what I do want to bring to light is that this phenomenon might not be the representation of something new, but instead a new way for someone with a certain mental health issue to express herself. Why the need to differentiate? Because it may shape the way we approach this problem (and I do see it as a problem, no matter its cause) and its solutions.

Whatever comes of this issue, you can be sure that this might be the first, but it certainly is not the last, time we will come across this.


Anne said...

Kris, thanks for this insight. I wholeheartedly agree with your point that "this phenomenon might not be the representation of something new, but instead a new way for someone with a certain mental health issue to express herself." I think very few of the behaviors we see online are new and that thinking of them as new (just because one may be seeing them manifested online for the first time) perpetuates confusion about how to help those exhibiting troubled behavior on the Net and on cellphones. Does that make any sense?

In my own post about danah and Formspring's discovery I didn't mean to suggest that I support the "cry for help" explanation any more than danah's other equally important possible explanations for digital self-abuse. I just zoomed in on it because my primary readership is parents and I feel this is such an important takeaway for them (and something they're potentially able to do something about more than the other two explanations). It was also beautifully reinforced by the police officer who wrote danah (she added his comment to the comments section after she got his permission to). But I suspect there are even more than three explanations for digital self-abuse and would be interested in hearing from psychologists and risk-prevention practitioners about the motivations for offline self-abuse. If they're myriad, then there are probably almost as many online ones because what occurs on the social Web is, we're seeing, increasingly mirroring "real life." Would love to hear your thoughts on that. Happy holidays!

Dr. Kris said...

Hi Anne and thanks for posting. I didn't mean to misrepresent your column. My apologies and please let me know if you would like me to edit anything.

I think your point is well-taken about the myriad explanations for this phenomenon (dare we call it that yet?) as well as those for offline self-harming. But I also think that there is great strength in trying to find both similarities and differences.

Happy holidays to you, too!

Triggs Shore said...

According to the 14 year old ninth grader across the street, "In my school, there are lots of students that do that. It's mostly girls, age 15 - 19 years old. Some do it so others post positive messages on their wall, but most of the others do it because they're depressed".