Teens have long used phones and the internet to tease and even torture one another, but research increasingly reveals that a surprising number use social media to post, send, or share demeaning messages about themselves.
In a sample of more than 5,000 American students between the ages of 12 and 17, about 6 percent said they had anonymously posted something “mean” about themselves online, according to a report in the Journal of Adolescent Health by cyberbullying researchers Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja. This behavior correlates with depression, identification as a sexual minority, previous exposure to bullying, and with physical self-harm.
Like other forms of self-harm, deriding oneself online is a way to vent and relieve negative emotions, says Ellen Selkie, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the University of Michigan. Yet digital self-harm is often quite public, and the survey study found that seeking attention or a reaction were among the reasons participants gave for such message sharing. Adolescence is a time when peers become particularly important, Selkie explains, and posting self-critical content could be a way for teens to see whether others stand up for them or endorse the cruel comments.
How should adults respond? “There is no silver bullet, and each child and family and situation is different,” explains Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Get emergency help if harm to a child seems imminent, she advises. Mental-health professionals can screen for mood disorders and seek to uncover the motivation behind the behavior.
Otherwise, parents might initiate a conversation by mentioning what they noticed of the behavior and using gentle prompts to gather a sense of what happened. Empathy and careful listening—even a brief story of a time when the parent felt similarly—can help move the conversation forward.