Digital Self-Harm Among Adolescents

Published:September 18, 2017DOI:



      Despite increased media and scholarly attention to digital forms of aggression directed toward adolescents by their peers (e.g., cyberbullying), very little research has explored digital aggression directed toward oneself. “Digital self-harm” is the anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself. The current study examined the extent of digital self-harm among adolescents.


      Survey data were obtained in 2016 from a nationally representative sample of 5,593 American middle and high school students (12–17 years old). Logistic regression analysis was used to identify correlates of participation in digital self-harm. Qualitative responses were also reviewed to better understand motivations for digital self-harm.


      About 6% of students have anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean. Males were significantly more likely to report participation (7.1% compared to 5.3%). Several statistically significant correlates of involvement in digital self-harm were identified, including sexual orientation, experience with school bullying and cyberbullying, drug use, participation in various forms of adolescent deviance, and depressive symptoms.


      Digital self-harm is a new problem that demands additional scholarly attention. A deeper inquiry as to the motivations behind this behavior, and how it correlates to offline self-harm and suicidal ideation, can help direct mental health professionals toward informed prevention approaches.


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Journal of Adolescent Health
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • De Ridder S.
        • Van Bauwel S.
        Commenting on pictures: Teens negotiating gender and sexualities on social networking sites.
        Sexualities. 2013; 16: 565-586
        • Davis K.
        Coming of age online: The developmental underpinnings of girls’ blogs.
        J Adolesc Res. 2010; 25: 145-171
        • Livingstone S.
        Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: Teenagers' use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression.
        New Media Soc. 2008; 10: 393-411
        • Lenhart A.
        • Madden M.
        • Smith A.
        • et al.
        Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites.
        Pew Internet Am Life Project. 2011; 28
        Hannah Smith inquest: Teenager posted 'online messages'.
        2014 (Available at:) (Accessed February 16, 2017)
        • Skegg K.
        Lancet. 2005; 366: 1471-1483
        • Whitlock J.
        • Muehlenkamp J.
        • Eckenrode J.
        • et al.
        Nonsuicidal self-injury as a gateway to suicide in young adults.
        J Adolesc Health. 2013; 52: 486-492
        • Cooper J.
        • Kapur N.
        • Webb R.
        • et al.
        Suicide after deliberate self-harm: A 4-year cohort study.
        Am J Psychiatry. 2005; 162: 297-303
        • Suominen K.
        • Isometsä E.
        • Suokas J.
        • et al.
        Completed suicide after a suicide attempt: A 37-year follow-up study.
        Am J Psychiatry. 2004; 161: 562-563
        • Haw C.
        • Hawton K.
        • Houston K.
        • Townsend E.
        Psychiatric and personality disorders in deliberate self-harm patients.
        Br J Psychiatry. 2001; 178: 48-54
        • Owens D.
        • Horrocks J.
        • House A.
        Fatal and non-fatal repetition of self-harm.
        Br J Psychiatry. 2002; 181: 193-199
        • Englander E.
        Digital self-harm: Frequency, type, motivations, and outcomes.
        2013 (Available at:) (Accessed June 30, 2012)
        • boyd d.
        Digital self-harm and other acts of self-harassment.
        2010 (Available at:) (Accessed February 16, 2017)
        • Mars B.
        • Heron J.
        • Crane C.
        • et al.
        Clinical and social outcomes of adolescent self harm: Population based birth cohort study.
        BMJ. 2014; 349: g5954
        • Kokkevi A.
        • Rotsika V.
        • Arapaki A.
        • Richardson C.
        Adolescents’ self-reported suicide attempts, self-harm thoughts and their correlates across 17 European countries.
        J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2012; 53: 381-389
        • Laye-Gindhu A.
        • Schonert-Reichl K.A.
        Nonsuicidal self-harm among community adolescents: Understanding the “whats” and “whys” of self-harm.
        J Youth Adolesc. 2005; 34: 447-457
        • Rodham K.
        • Hawton K.
        • Evans E.
        Reasons for deliberate self-harm: Comparison of self-poisoners and self-cutters in a community sample of adolescents.
        J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2004; 43: 80-87
        • Klonsky E.D.
        The functions of deliberate self-injury: A review of the evidence.
        Clin Psychol Rev. 2007; 27: 226-239
        • Funnell N.
        Digital self-harm: Teens tap out an online cry for help.
        Age. 2013; (Available at:) (Accessed January 28, 2017)
        • Lenhart A.
        • Smith A.
        • Anderson M.
        Teens, technology and romantic relationships.
        Pew Res Cent. 2015; (Accessed April 6, 2017)
        • Kaplowitz M.D.
        • Hadlock T.D.
        • Levine R.
        A comparison of web and mail survey response rates.
        Public Opin Q. 2004; 68: 94-101
        • Baruch Y.
        • Holtom B.C.
        Survey response rate levels and trends in organizational research.
        Hum Relat. 2008; 61: 1139-1160
        • Patchin J.W.
        • Hinduja S.
        Cyberbullying: Research in review.
        2016 (Accessed June 8, 2017)
        • Manfreda K.L.
        • Bosnjak M.
        • Berzelak J.
        • et al.
        Web surveys versus other survey modes: A meta-analysis comparing response rates.
        J Market Res Soc. 2008; 50: 79
        • Fricker R.D.
        • Schonlau M.
        Advantages and disadvantages of Internet research surveys: Evidence from the literature.
        Field Methods. 2002; 14: 347-367
        • Swannell S.V.
        • Martin G.E.
        • Page A.
        • et al.
        Prevalence of nonsuicidal self-injury in nonclinical samples: Systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression.
        Suicide Life-Threat. 2014; 44: 273-303
        • Hawton K.
        • Saunders K.E.
        • O'Connor R.C.
        Self-harm and suicide in adolescents.
        Lancet. 2012; 379: 2373-2382
        • Simpson C.
        Cutting and self-harm.
        ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA2015
        • Tsypes A.
        • Lane R.
        • Paul E.
        • Whitlock J.
        Non-suicidal self-injury and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in heterosexual and sexual minority young adults.
        Compr Psychiatry. 2016; 65: 32-43
        • Fisher H.L.
        • Moffitt T.E.
        • Houts R.M.
        • et al.
        Bullying victimisation and risk of self harm in early adolescence: Longitudinal cohort study.
        BMJ. 2012; 344: e2683
        • Hay C.
        • Meldrum R.
        Bullying victimization and adolescent self-harm: Testing hypotheses from general strain theory.
        J Youth Adolesc. 2010; 39: 446-459
        • Hay C.
        • Meldrum R.
        • Mann K.
        Traditional bullying, cyber bullying, and deviance: A general strain theory approach.
        J Contemp Criminal Justice. 2010; 26: 130-147
        • Hawton K.
        • Rodham K.
        • Evans E.
        • Weatherall R.
        Deliberate self harm in adolescents: Self report survey in schools in England.
        BMJ. 2002; 325: 1207-1211
        • Rasmussen S.
        • Hawton K.
        Adolescent self-harm: A school-based study in Northern Ireland.
        J Affect Disord. 2014; 159: 46-52
        • Shin Y.M.
        • Chung Y.K.
        • Lim K.Y.
        • et al.
        Childhood predictors of deliberate self-harm behavior and suicide ideation in Korean adolescents: A prospective population-based follow-up study.
        J Korean Med Sci. 2009; 24: 215-222
        • Sourander A.
        • Aromaa M.
        • Pihlakoski L.
        • et al.
        Early predictors of deliberate self-harm among adolescents. A prospective follow-up study from age 3 to age 15.
        J Affect Disord. 2006; 93: 87-96
        • Braun V.
        • Clarke V.
        Using thematic analysis in psychology.
        Qual Res Psychol. 2006; 3: 77-101
        • Ballor C.
        Texas Rangers investigating suicide of teen who was allegedly bullied for months.
        2016 (Available at:) (Accessed November 5, 2016)
        • Muehlenkamp J.J.
        • Gutierrez P.M.
        An investigation of differences between self-injurious behavior and suicide attempts in a sample of adolescents.
        Suicide Life-Threat. 2004; 34: 12-23
        • Brenner P.S.
        • DeLamater J.D.
        Social desirability bias in self-reports of physical activity: Is an exercise identity the culprit?.
        Social Indicators Res. 2014; 117: 489-504
        • Rosen P.M.
        • Walsh B.W.
        Patterns of contagion in self-mutilation epidemics.
        Am J Psychiatry. 1989; 146: 656
        • Gould M.S.
        • Petrie K.
        • Kleinman M.H.
        • Wallenstein S.
        Clustering of attempted suicide: New Zealand national data.
        Int J Epidemiol. 1994; 23: 1185-1189
        • Moreno M.A.
        • Ton A.
        • Selkie E.
        • Evans Y.
        Secret society 123: Understanding the language of self-harm on Instagram.
        J Adolesc Health. 2016; 58: 78-84
        • Gabriel F.
        Sexting, selfies and self-harm: Young people, social media and the performance of self-development.
        Media Int Aust. 2014; 151: 104-112
        • Moran J.M.
        Faking it online: The disturbing trend of Internet cancer hoaxes.
        Fox News Health. 2012; (Accessed January 28, 2017)
        • Grady D.
        Faking pain and suffering in internet support groups.
        New York Times, 1998 (Accessed January 28, 2017)
        • Pulman A.
        • Taylor J.
        Munchausen by internet: Current research and future directions.
        J Med Internet Res. 2012; 14: e115
        • Feldman M.D.
        Munchausen by internet: Detecting factitious illness and crisis on the internet.
        South Med J. 2000; 93: 669-672