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Experts concerned over kids posting 'digital self-harm' on social media

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Geoff Gaukler, a guidance counselor at Red River High School, says that most students use social media responsibly, but school personnel are alert to problems that could arise with students' misuse of technology. photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service2 / 2

While much attention has been given to steering kids away from using social media to bully others, a recent study has found that some teens are anonymously posting hurtful messages about themselves online.

It's called "digital self-harm," and its rates are similar to traditional means of self-harm, such as cutting or burning, researchers say.

The study, led by Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, found that 6 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 engage in digital self-harm.

The practice of posting demeaning or critical messages about oneself presents an unusual wrinkle in the world of teenagers' online behavior, say those who work in the counseling and mental health fields.

But, rather than focusing on the act itself, it's important for parents and other adults to try to understand the motivation behind it and determine the most supportive ways to respond.

Dr. Stefanie Hanisch, a child psychiatrist at Sanford Health, said she has not had patients say they've engaged in digital self harm, but "given the statistics and the numbers, I would be very surprised if I don't have some, and I will be more vigilant about asking about it."

Teenagers' pervasive use of communication technology may at least partially explain the incidence of digital self harm.

"Electronic media is such an integral part of every young person's life these days," Hanisch said. "To think that 40 percent of kids have been bullied either in school or online, that's a huge proportion of kids. It's not a leap to think, 'How can we use this to reinforce how bad we are or how badly we feel about ourselves?' "

Parents and other caring adults in kids' lives should not minimize the problem.

"What is most important to communicate is that, whoever is the victim of cyberbullying is the victim regardless of who the perpetrator is," Hanisch said.

"We need to be careful not to turn this into something that we just brush off or say, 'Look at these kids, they're just attention-seeking.' The mere fact that someone would go to those kinds of lengths to try and get attention is a warning sign and should be taken quite seriously.

"(It's important) to delve deeper and find out what the true motivation behind it was."

Not all incidents of this type, though, are evidence of a serious mental health issue.

"We have to be careful not to assume that every case of digital self-harm is an attempt to actually self-harm, per se," Hanisch said.

In the recent study, some teens who reported digital self harm, "especially the boys, said they did it because it was fun, or 'I was mad at somebody,' " she said. "That's a little different from, 'I wanted empathy' and 'I wanted to get people to feel sorry for me.' "

Hanisch said parents who are concerned about this behavior by their teen should avoid being judgmental and should "try to get help through a professional counselor or therapist to hopefully get at what underlies this."

Positive approach

Geoff Gaukler, a counselor at Red River High School, said that the focus in the public school system is on teaching students how to use social media responsibly—and the vast majority of them do.

He and his colleagues have found that emphasis on the positive "is the best approach," he said.

That's in keeping with the principles of Sources of Strength, a program that has been adopted in several middle and high schools to reach students who may be dealing with mental health issues. It promotes the awareness of eight common sources of strength that students can use to help get them through difficult times in life.

Gaukler said he and his colleagues have not encountered students who report digital self harm, but he agreed that uncovering the motives for engaging in self harm is critical to helping the student, "and also finding out what type of supports do those kids need if we find out they are engaging in something like this."

"Regardless of what their motives are—whether it's for attention, whether it's depression, or whether, in their mind's eye, they're doing it as a joke—it's still worth giving that person extra support."

For parents, friends and others who work with adolescents, what's important "is keeping open lines of communication," Gaukler said. "Even if (the behavior) is a cry for attention, the more time you spend with them—a son, daughter, friend, a sibling—the less opportunity to inflict that self harm, whether it's physical or digital."

He encourages parents to "identify as many ways as possible to give (their child) an opportunity to talk, and not just be talked to."

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