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.