*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on Deseret News.
Experts agree that hateful messages directed at adolescents, which are often posted anonymously, have the potential to harm, from embarrassing or distressing their subject to encouraging suicide.
But those who go looking for the source of mean-spirited emails, texts or social media posts may be surprised to learn that sometimes the victim is also the perpetrator, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Florida Atlantic University, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Harsh posts about oneself are called "digital self-harm." And in a nationally representative survey of 5,593 middle- and high-school students ages 12 to 17, about 6 percent said they'd anonymously posted something mean about themselves online.
"Five or 6 percent isn't that big a deal — until you think about the millions of kids out there," said Justin W. Patchin, study author, who is a professor of criminal justice at University of Wisconsin and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center with the study's other author, Sameer Hinduja, of Florida Atlantic University. "That is not negligible."
Cyberbullying, which includes posting hurtful content about someone on digital channels, requires attention, regardless of its source, said Patchin. As he wrote in a blog about the research: "Any time a student experiences cyberbullying, there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Even if — no, especially if — the sender and the receiver are the same person."
In 2013, a girl named Hannah Smith, 14, from Leicestershire, England, made international news when she killed herself after having been cyberbullied. When investigators tried to locate the peers who targeted her, they were stunned to discover she'd been posting the hateful words herself. It wasn't the only news story like that, either, which piqued the researchers' interest, said Patchin. He and Hinduja added questions about digital self-harm to a survey they were conducting last year, to get a baseline understanding of how common it is.
Several of the findings surprised Patchin. While the cases that prompted the question involved girls, the study found boys were more likely to say they'd bullied themselves online — 7.1 percent of males to 5.3 percent of females. Typically, boys who self-harm are at the older end of the age range, while girls are at the younger end of that 12- to 17-year-old range. Digital self-harm was also more common than what they'd expected. "I thought it might be 1 or 2 percent," Patchin said.
About half who posted something mean about themselves said they only did it once, one-third did so a few times and 13 percent did it "many times."
Youths who'd been cyberbullied were 12 times more likely to post bad things about themselves online compared to those who had not. Drug use and depression were among factors that increased likelihood of digital self-harm.
Just as more traditional self-harm like cutting and depression sometimes precede suicide attempts, Patchin and Hinduja write that "digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts." They say more study of the entire issue is needed.
Why adolescents self-troll is a question that likely has different, individual answers, the study said. Earlier research suggested youths do it to get attention of peers, but it found gender variations. "Interestingly, girls did it to prove they could handle it, encourage others to worry or get attention from adults, while boys did it because they are mad at someone and wanted to start a fight," Patchin and Hinduja wrote of past studies.
They note the negative messages posted by youths might also be used to seek empathy, show toughness or verify if "certain negative perceptions of them are universally shared by others and make their pain more visible and, consequently, more real." Almost half of those who responded to "why" in the new research referred to getting some reaction from others, including seeking validation that someone cares.