In past decades, teenagers struggling to deal with their emotions might have coped by taking a razor blade to their forearm or extinguishing cigarettes on their skin.
Today’s teens, products of the internet era, have found an additional outlet.

Approximately 6% of adolescents between 12 and 17 years old engage in a practice known as “digital self-harm,” or the posting or sharing of demeaning information about oneself anonymously online, a new study finds.

“I was surprised that the numbers were as high as they were,” Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire and the study’s lead author, told Business Insider.

A growing body of evidence has found smartphones to be a driving force in declining mental health among teenagers. Teen suicide rates recently eclipsed homicide rates, and some psychologists claim it’s largely due to the loneliness and anxiety produced by digital technology.

“I don’t think it dawned on anyone that teens would leverage anonymity in this way,” Dr. Danah Boyd, digital self-harm researcher and author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” told the BBC. “It tends to startle anyone I tell about it.”

Researchers like Boyd (who was not involved in the latest study) have found that digital self-harm offers teens a chance to safely get attention from friends and publicize the negative feelings they have been keeping in their heads. The act can serve as a kind of purge — expunging bad self-impressions, either about appearance or personality, can validate a young person’s insecurities.

“The ubiquity of social media and the way in which youth present and represent themselves in order to obtain attention, validation, and feedback from an audience,” the authors wrote, “may enhance the likelihood they choose online spaces as the preferred venue through which they can affect and reach others.”

– Chris Weller

Read more: Teenagers Engaging In ‘Digital Self-Harm’

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