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On August 2, 2013, fourteen-year-old Hannah Smith of Leicestershire, England, hanged herself and was found dead by her sister. She reportedly had been harassed online for months prior to her death, and her anguished father demanded an investigation into the cyber-bullying that had driven her to suicide. The investigation revealed, however, that the cruel messages Hannah had received on social media had in fact been posted by Hannah herself. If these messages had wounded her, the wounds were self-inflicted.

Is Hannah Smith’s case an outlier in the world of adolescent social media? In 2010, blogger danah boyd coined the term “digital self harm” and reported that it may be more common than most people suspect. Some teens write mean questions to themselves and then publicly answer them; others take the trouble to set up anonymous accounts through which they send themselves hurtful or threatening messages.

Boyd advanced three possible explanations. First, this behavior may be a cry for help—an expression of emotional anguish, depression, or self-loathing. Like Hannah Smith, these teens may be at risk for suicide. This behavior is analogous to maladaptive forms of deliberate physical self-harm, such as cutting or burning oneself. A second possibility is that these teens may be trying to trigger compliments, fishing for their friends to jump in and contradict the attacks by saying nice things about them. A third possibility is that they want to look cool: “In some schools, getting criticized is a sign of popularity,” boyd wrote. “By posting and responding to negative anonymous questions, it’s possible to look important by appearing to be cool enough to be attacked.”

This suggests that some teens are consciously seeking out the cyber-bullied-victim role because it confers social benefits and can be a marker of status. In a culture shaped by a politics of identity, where white knights identify novel victims to be rescued, victim status may confer power or perks: “I can’t go to class today; I’m emotionally distressed because I’m being bullied online”; or perhaps simply, “I’m important enough to be targeted by haters.” But is there good empirical evidence for this explanation?

In the first systematic investigation of this behavior among adolescents, recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja report their findings from a large, randomly sampled population-based study of 12-to-17-year-olds in the U.S. Of the 5,593 adolescents surveyed, one in twenty admitted to engaging in “digital self harm.” Specifically, 6 percent reported that they had “anonymously posted something online about myself that was mean.” Among these, 36 percent said they had done it a few times, and 13 percent said they had done it many times. Likewise, 5 percent responded affirmatively to the statement, “I have anonymously cyberbullied myself.” Among these, 37 percent had done it a few times, and 18 percent had done it many times.

Boys in the study were somewhat more likely to report this behavior than girls; those who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were three times more likely to report this behavior; those who were bullied at school were four to five times more likely, and those bullied online (by others) were seven to twelve times more likely. Other research suggests that approximately 13 to 18 percent of adolescents engage in physically self-injurious behaviors such as cutting during their lifetimes. However, in this study, only 7 percent of those who admitted to digital self-harm reported a history of physical self-harm.

About half of those in the study who admitted to digital self-harm provided comments regarding why they did it. Besides tragic cases of self-hatred, emotional anguish, or depression, there were other significant motivating patterns. Some teens thought it would be funny: “I do not like hurting others, but it’s easy to make fun of myself. I was bored and did it to maybe make others laugh as a joke.” Other reasons revealed a self-obsession nurtured by online gossip: One did it “to see how people I know would react so I would know if they were talking about me behind my back”; another did it “to see what others were saying and to see how others saw me”; and yet another “wanted to see if someone was really my friend.” Other reasons suggest elements in adolescent social media that encourage victimhood or narcissistic attention-seeking. Consider this explanation: “So people could see that people bully me too and that I could be mean to other people because ‘people’ were mean to me.”

In response to this phenomenon, some may double down on bullying prevention interventions. Though efforts to protect those who are cyber-bullied are laudable, we are witnessing something quite different here. If bullying means anything, it means harm or mistreatment by others; bullying oneself doesn’t count. Furthermore, lumping all of these cases into the category of deliberate self-harm misses the mark in many instances. For some teens, cyber self-harm may indeed constitute a new form of self-harm; for others, it may represent a strange form of self-aggrandizement.   

Have we created a culture in which the status of victimhood is sufficiently desirable that many young men and women will go to remarkable lengths to establish an online victim identity? These findings raise the question.

Aaron Kheriaty, MD, is associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Bioethics Program at UC Irvine School of Medicine.

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