Cyber self-harm; why we need to think about this properly, why psychologists urgently need to understand the internet

TRIGGER WARNING: self-harm, suicide

I tweeted a little bit about this this morning but I want to talk about it in longform because it’s an important issue that I feel incredibly strongly about.

You would have had to be living under some kind of proverbial internet rock in order to have missed the recent push to address online abuse. Very high profile people have been bringing forward the torrent of sexually violent and threatening abuse which is leveled daily at anyone who sticks their neck above the online barricade.

At the culmination of it, tragically, a fourteen-year-old girl took her own life last week after being continuously barraged with abuse on Ask.FM, a site where users can create a profile page and then be sent questions/comments on it by other users and anonymous visitors. Her wall was flooded with messages telling her to kill herself, drink bleach, harm herself and that she was worthless, ugly, stupid, awful. The worst things you can imagine being sent to an insecure or anxious teenager (and are there any teenagers who aren’t?) and an environment where it’s easy to draw a correlation between the severity of the abuse sent, the desperation of a young girl and the eventual decision to take her life.

What people are shocked by is the subsequent statistic from Ask.FM’s administrators that much of the abuse she was sent (although by no means all) was sent by her, to herself, anonymously. Some of the worst messages of abuse were from her own IP address (which is the location of your computer on the internet) and were directly traceable.

It’s easy to understand how, to a grieving parent, to many of the people following the story, this seems obscene. A vile accusation by Ask.FM’s administrators to attempt to pass the buck, a terrible thing to level against a girl who was clearly suffering. This is precisely one of the problems with the way we think about the online world and the way that people exist in it. Which is why I am writing this.

I can tell you that teenagers send themselves abusive messages every day. So do older people. Why? Well, because it’s a form of self-harm. And I am going to talk about why that is and what it is, now.

[Because I always want to put this front and centre of my engagement with these issues, I want to reaffirm that as part of my commitment to being part of the Multi-fandom Support Group and also to mothering absolutely everyone whether they want it or not, it is ALWAYS ok for you to message me on here and talk about stuff. My askbox and my fanmail are open and anon is on; you can send me whatever. I’m not a psychologist but I am an ok person for you to talk to if you want to; I have a CRB check to work with children and vulnerable people and I’ve published my real name here so you can verify who I am if you do a quick google. I don’t want to talk about this in isolation or at a distance and I absolutely do not want anyone to think this is judgemental or disconnected from the issues. It’s not. This is me talking about my direct engagement with them.]

The image of self-harm is decades out of date. Ritchie Manics’ carved-into forearm, razor blades and bruised wrists- we think about it more in terms of Girl, Interrupted, visceral and physical and raw and bloody, rather than something which occurs in cyberspace, something almost nebulous, electronic.

How many people know what Tumblr is, outside of Tumblr? I mean, really know what Tumblr is, not ‘it’s a website?’ I am an online sort of person, I’ve been hanging around the internet since the 90s, I met most of my friends through social media. And until last week, I’d never heard of Ask.FM. Why? Cus I’m old, cus I don’t do whatever it is is you do to be engaged with it, cus my social circles would be more likely to use Formspring for that. And I’m an internet person.

There are hundreds of social media websites that are used by people to a greater or lesser degree of nicheness and unless you’re astonishingly specialist in your profession or you really have nothing else to do, there’s no way that you’d know them all. Especially no way that you’d understand all of their communications methods, whether they allowed anonymous comments, the users, who they are and what they do.

Self-harm is an expression of a lot of things. There’s no one thing it means. I know- I have the lattice of silvery, matted scar tissue all over my thighs to offer as my credentials. I’ve got the acrylic nails I have to wear to, even now, stop myself absentmindedly tearing my own hands to pieces, I’ve got a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil that’s rust-coloured from blood absorption. Sometimes it’s frustration and anger. Sometimes it’s self-hatred and a visceral need to act out violence upon one’s own body, whether out of loathing for your physicality or some mental torment over things you have done or things you fear about yourself.

Sometimes it’s the routine, boring activity of mental illness; you’ve got home, so you’ll slice your thighs for an hour, do something else for a bit and then 10pm back to sort out any areas you’ve missed. You regard it as work, occasionally- oh, better just top up the bit by my knee.

If you think I’m being glib, I’m not. My right leg doesn’t work properly- the muscle is so shredded, so deeply that a keloid scar disrupts my quadricep and aches, yanking tendons around. I do not think that self-harm is funny. But some of the situations and reasons and emotions that people experience when they are at risk of or already harming themselves are things that can sound so alien to someone who hasn’t experienced it that they sound like jokes.

How could you regard a razorblade as homework? This is why we call it mental illness. Profound distress, deep pain, a total abstraction from ‘normality’ –sometimes, only in short bursts; people who self-harm can often look totally happy and healthy when they are not in the space in which they hurt themselves. The double-life affair with pain.

I want you to understand this stuff because in order to answer why a fourteen year old girl would send herself thousands of abusive, anonymous messages, you need to get that self-harm is habit forming. That it becomes normalized to the person who is subjecting themself to it. Mundane, dislikable, even. Like the washing up, it’s something that you come to believe you simply do. Sometimes in a frenzy, sometimes as habit.

I’m talking about old school self-harm, here. Not that it’s gone and forgotten- no, not in the slightest. Cutting is on the rise, especially amongst young people and the habit, in terms of the socialized norms of depression and mental illness, is not going away.

As with all things in 2013, though, there’s an app for it now. I wasn’t born on the internet but people ten years younger than me were- not in some particularly brave livestream but in the sense that they have lived their entire lives connected. Their parents announced their birth by email, maybe- if they’re under ten then there’s a good chance their pre-natal scans might have gone on Facebook. The internet and the channels through which they access it (laptop, phone, etc.) are as much part of them as their voice, their hands.

It’s true for a lot of us older digital natives, of course but the depth of the integration is growing at a pace that I, as a 26-year-old who works in IT, can’t always keep up with it. So it’s understandable that psychology hasn’t but that lack of keeping pace, that closeted ignorance, is putting (in particular) young people at real risk.

You see, I can think of maybe four or five young people I’ve encountered on Tumblr who I would (non-judgementally, analytically) suspect have sent themselves anonymous abuse messages in order to express their self-hatred, attack themselves through the abstraction of answering anonymous aggression. It’s easy to do- just have an additional browser where you’re not signed in to Tumblr and leave your inbox open to anonymous things. Cleaner than a razorblade, easy to express your self-loathing through an avatar of external hatred

How do I know that some people, especially young people, send themselves anonymous abuse on Tumblr? Honestly, it’s a hunch. But I’ve got good instincts for this and it’s one I’ve got a lot of confidence in- some of it is to do with timing, some is pattern recognition and a strong gut feeling- I’m not a psychologist and I would never ask someone whether the abuse they receive is from other people or themselves- either way, it’s genuinely abusive and it’s genuinely causing them significant harm so the distinction is more-than-half meaningless, even in thinking about CBT techniques.

We would never think that the fact that people cut themselves with razorblades negates that people also use them to attack each other. That abusers use them to attack their victims. We don’t look at someone who physically self-harms and assume that this means they have never had someone else hurt them. We understand that the existence of self-harm does not negate the existence of harm inflicted by others.

I want to make it clear: just because *some* anonymous messages of abuse are sent by the victim, as an act of public self-harm, a cry for help or a way of berating and abusing themselves does not IN ANY WAY negate the fact that many, many abusive messages are sent by vindictive, cowardly bullies.

I wrote awhile ago about the fact I don’t get anonymous hate- it’s because I’m no kind of fun target, I’m too big and hairy and used to comments on my music reviews telling me to kill myself. But the fact I’ve grown my skin so thick I’m surprised my earrings haven’t popped out doesn’t mean that anyone should, that the online world shouldn’t be expected to be a safe place and that people who tell other people to kill themselves and send disgusting messages to them from the siege tower of anonymity aren’t behaving appallingly and in many cases, criminally.

We need to look at online harm as real harm, whether it’s self-inflicted or from an external aggressor. Someone who is in distress and receives thousands of messages telling them to kill themselves is at as much risk of very serious physical harm to themselves as someone who is subject to physical abuse of any kind. We urgently need to understand this as a situational symptom to mental distress; “how many times have you been told, by yourself or other people, that you would be better off dead today?” –for some children on Tumblr, it’s in the hundreds.

This is stuff that is treatable with legal action and technological ability to block and ban abuse from the aggressor’s side, if they are external and with CBT techniques and non-judgemental, educated therapy for the victim and/or their internal abuser. Tumblr went a long way with this with the ability to report users as at risk of suicide but there is a massive gap in the treatments and understanding offered to young people regarding the spheres, bodies and ways in which they might be harmed by others or by themselves. Where they might want to harm themselves, as a corpus they can attack.

If someone is being harassed in Habbo Hotel, it matters. It matters like they’re being harassed in the street, if Habbo Hotel is somewhere that they psychologically inhabit. And social media is somewhere where we set up shop, create a body that can be injured. Banning and prohibiting is not the solution here- better public consciousness and much more developed academic and clinical understanding is essential to protecting children and vulnerable adults.

Do psychologists understand this? I don’t know. Some will, of course. But it’s not in the textbooks, it’s not part of NHS policy, it’s not something that’s pervasive within the perception of ways in which people can be subject to harm.

In a talk about cyberpunk at Nine Worlds this weekend, a neuroscientist explained that one of the problems with academic and clinical developments is that unless it’s being done for a major company (and even then, realistically) the speed of development and recognition of new treatments and environments is slowed by the need to constantly publish, to distract oneself, to narrow one’s focus; by the time CBT techniques approved for use with children acknowledge cyber self-harm it’s going to be too late for at least a few of them.

We need to understand this now, we need to talk about it now. We need not to shame people who hurt themselves this way, we need to identify the harmful, criminal behavior of people who seek to hurt others this way. We need to drop our disbelief and stop failing children and vulnerable people who experience this harm.

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The bit that looks arrogant but might be relevant: if you’re a journalist, blogger, academic or simply curious person who would like to talk to me about this or an editor who’d like to excerpt it, give us a shout on hazel.robinson7@gmail.com or drop me a Tumblr ask if you’re from round here.

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