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.]
Read Hazel’s post. She’s a good person and right too. Then come back and read my impotent ranting if you want.
Right. Additional information: danah boyd, probably the most humane, intelligent and perceptive commentator on “online culture” I’ve encountered, identified self-harming on Q&A sites in 2010. http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2010/12/07/digital-self-harm-and-other-acts-of-self-harassment.html (Trigger Warnings for that link, obviously - though the comments are good, and expland on this.)
So this has been known about for a while. It’s not just that psychologists should have hypothesised about this, this ought IMO to already be part of the basic training on online health issues. When I started hearing about ask.fm related suicides, boyd’s work was the first thing I thought about.
So why hasn’t this become more widely known? Why weren’t Q&A sites better known in the first place? Psychologists should know more, for certain, but also the ‘old’ media do a largely pathetic job of writing about and understanding what happens online. They’ve barely got their heads around the differences between Facebook and Twitter, let alone any lower-tier sites and their cultures.
For instance, I haven’t read a single mainstream story about Ask.fm which acknowledged the very basic fact - shout me if I’m wrong about this - that questions aren’t made public until they’re answered. In other words, anything any visitor or journalist saw on a profile - any hate, any praise, anything - is there because the profile owner chose to make it public. Which immediately changes your understanding of the site - it stops being “trolls plague a site” and becomes a public, potentially very dangerous, game of truth, dare, acknowledgement and defiance.
In this case the story - evil trolls kill innocent girl - chimed so neatly with the ongoing story about anonymous abuse and threats to journalists that the UK press were already preoccupied with that any nuance was likely to be trampled. So a full-scale, textbook moral panic it is, then. But the two situations were utterly different already, only linked because they took place in that scary space “online”. “Feminist campaigner receives death threat”. “Teen is bullied and kills herself”. These are both newsworthy stories but if they existed outside ‘the internet’ - and of course they do, all the time - why would anyone ever relate them?
I don’t know if I’m even going anywhere with this. I’m just furious really. I’m a parent myself, Ask.FM scares the fuck out of me, it’s not that I don’t understand the impulse to read about it and block your ears. What do I try and do? Become better informed. But when the information - for kids, for parents, for whoever - is so basic and simplistic, what good does it even do? I’m lucky, I know (a bit) about the Internet. But then I think - OK, what about all the other stuff I don’t know about?