Teens Are Now Cyberbullying Themselves
The latest trend in the horror show of 21st-century adolescence? Self-cyberbullying.
The behavior — also called “digital self-harm” or “self-trolling” — is surprisingly prevalent, says Sameer Hinduja, PhD, a researcher and bullying expert at Florida Atlantic University who recently led a study that found 1 in 20 middle- and high-schoolers in the US have purposefully posted, sent or shared mean things about themselves anonymously online.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that of the teens who reported self-cyberbullying, about half had done it just once, about one-third had done it a few times, and 13% had done it many times. Interestingly, boys were more likely than girls to participate in this behavior. Their reasons, however, varied dramatically: Boys described their behavior as a joke or a way to get attention while girls said they did it because they were depressed or psychologically hurt.
Perhaps the most significant finding, however, is that victims of cyberbullying were nearly 12 times as likely to have cyberbullied themselves, compared to those who had never been cyberbullied by others. Drug use, depressive symptoms, or previous self-harm behavior offline also increased the likelihood a teen would self-cyberbully.
“We need to refrain from demonizing those who bully, and come to terms with the troubling fact that in certain cases the aggressor and target may be one and the same,” Hinduja says. “What is more, their self-cyberbullying behavior may indicate a deep need for social and clinical support.”
This message of support is what parents should focus on, rather than panic, says Anusha Manjani, a Mumbai-based therapist who often works with children and teens.
“Self-cyberbullying sounds really tough to identify, as a parent,” says Manjani, who has dealt with cases of cyberbullying in her practice, but none self-initiated that she is aware of. “It’s anonymous.”
A more noticeable, concerning behavior could be a practice called ‘vaguebooking,’ that is, writing social media posts that contain little actual and clear information, but are worded in such a way as to solicit attention and concern from potential readers. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Central Florida and published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly, young people who often write such posts were found to be lonelier, and to be slightly more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Manjani is quick to note that self-harm behavior — whether physical, like cutting, or virtual, like cyberbullying — and attention-seeking behavior, like vaguebooking, are not always indicative of suicidal impulses. The only thing parents can be sure of is that these actions mean a teen is struggling to cope with a complex emotional burden.
“The important thing is to give them the space to express,” Manjani says. She suggests starting the conversation by asking about the child’s emotions and well-being, and asking what you can do to help them, rather than by lecturing or calling out the concerning behavior. “Self-cyberbullying is a sign of something deeper. It’s a warning sign, but you still have to figure out what the triggers are.”