Cyber-bullying is bad enough, but children are increasingly posting harmful comments about themselves. Tanith Carey reports.
In a nondescript bedroom, a sombre-looking girl holds up a message that seems to have been hastily scribbled on the back of a homework assignment. The words “Roast Me” next to her photograph are an invitation for users of the social network site Reddit to annihilate the girl’s appearance, from her glasses to her hair style.
Minutes after the selfie, titled: “I’m 15″ is posted, there is a feeding frenzy of comments beneath it, vicious to the point of being unprintable.
“Are your glasses a substitute for your lack of personality?” asks one commenter. Another writes, “When your parents found out that you were cutting yourself, I bet they went out and bought sharper razors”.
The only rule in this online bear pit, where users compete to make the cruellest remark, is that those posting must be over 13 and they must hold up the sign, to show the picture was not uploaded by anyone else.
And while most posts are by older people, you don’t need to scroll far to find pictures of vulnerable teens (some are even taken at school) lining up to be ripped apart, even though they look far too frail to withstand it.
This month, a report launched for Safer Internet Day revealed that a quarter of 13 to 18-year-olds had been abused online. One in 25 said they were singled out for insults “all or most of the time”.
As parents, we are growing sadly used to frightening headlines about cyberbullies and trolls invading our children’s bedrooms via their smartphones. But absurd as it may sound, it’s now becoming clear that there is another source: some of our children are bullying themselves, either by adopting fake online identities or inviting strangers to do it for them. It’s a phenomenon known as cyber self-harm.
In one study of 600 students, US researchers found that almost one in 10 had posted toxic remarks about themselves online.
Such behaviour first came to light in the UK three years ago, when 14-yearold Hannah Smith, from Lutterworth, Leicestershire, killed herself in her bedroom after messages such as “go die”, “get cancer” and “drink bleach” were posted to her profile on anonymous question-and-answer site Ask FM. At the inquest into her death, the coroner concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the vile messages “would all have been at Hannah’s own hand”.
But why would any young person say such vile things about themselves so publicly – using words, rather than razors, to inflict harm themselves? Self-trolling can pre-empt criticism from others and help express the selfloathing teens feel for not measuring up to the high standards of physical perfection they set for themselves.
“Bringing this pain out into the open can make it feel more real and important,” says Rachel Welch, a counsellor from Freedom From Harm.
Furthermore, in an online world where self-worth can depend on the number of likes you get for a picture, posting remarks from mean “strangers” can attract compliments from otherwise indifferent peers. Welch says: “Anyone can set up a new profile to send themselves horrible messages. It gives the young person a label that finally gets them the support they haven’t been able to ask for.”
This self-harm is even harder to spot than the physical hurt that young people inflict on themselves. Last week, it was revealed that the number of self-harmers under 18 admitted to A&E and diagnosed with a mental disorder has grown from 7,000 in 2010/11 to almost 15,000 in 2014/15 – the number who had self-poisoned went up by a third in the same period.
Andy Phippen, professor of Social Responsibility at Plymouth University, says self-harm does not have to be physical to be damaging: “This is so hidden, and it’s hard to get young people to talk about it, so it falls between the gaps. One child might be doing it to seek attention, another may be suicidal. Either way, it’s a manifestation of factors such as low self-esteem and depression.”
For social media psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy, who studies young people’s online behaviour, cyber selfharm is symptomatic of the isolating effects of social comparison: “Judgments are no longer based on how generally attractive you are, but on the finest details of your appearance, such as whether your legs are the right length or shape.”
While most social media sites go to great lengths to remove offensive content, they rely on being made aware of it in the first place. This is less likely to happen when such content has been posted by the target.
Ellie Thomas, now 19, admits that when she was 15, she went on Ask FM to pose questions and invite answers. Having posted queries such as: “What is the best thing about me?”, she would then log back on under the alter ego “Staceeey” and remark: “Nothing. You are no one.”
Ellie has still not told her mother that she posted the comments – only confiding in counsellors at the help website, www.self-harm.co.uk.
“I knew it was me writing that stuff, but on screen it wasn’t me,” she says. “My own posts would say I was ugly, I was useless, I wasn’t loved… all the stuff going round in my head. My friends were trying to stick up for me against these mysterious trolls, so to keep up I had to post insulting messages about them, too.
“It was killing me to see them get so angry on my behalf, and I knew I had to stop. But it was never about hurting people. It was about hurting myself.”
After five teen suicides were linked to Ask FM, the site has since tightened its controls. But the self-abuse has migrated elsewhere. On Tumblr, a scrap-book style website for pictures, videos and comments, dozens of blogs are given over to outpourings of selfloathing by people, which are then shared by like-minded youngsters.
Another form of this masochistic trend is the “rate my looks” posts on Facebook and YouTube, in which others are invited to comment – usually snowballing into a series of sexual or appearance-based insults.
Back on Reddit, there are plenty more young people ready to be “roasted”. A small boy with shaggy hair, asks “Help me cry myself to sleep”. Another, of about 14, appeals for users to “destroy what little selfesteem I have left”. A startled, pudgyfaced girl of no more than 13 is being told she is a “fat-faced whore”.
Even if these situations are created by the young people themselves, the anguish they express is real. More than anything, cyber self-harm is a stark reminder that no one judges our children more harshly than they do themselves.
Some names have been changed. If you have experienced any of the issues raised here, call Childline on 0800 1111 Tanith Carey is author of Girls Uninterrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World
‘One child might be doing it to seek attention; another may be suicidal’