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You might be familiar with the concept of self-harm, but it isn’t just physical. As it turns out, people can harm themselves through the anonymity of the internet.

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[♪ INTRO ].

You're probably familiar with the concept of self-harm. When you see it in books, movies, and TV shows, it's usually portrayed as some troubled person seeking a physical outlet for their emotional pain.

But that's only part of the story. Self-harm, or what psychologists call non-suicidal self-injury, isn't just physical. People can hurt themselves in all kinds of ways — including, as it turns out, through the anonymity of the internet.

Finding coping strategies is crucial for taking care of your mental health. But first, you have to be able to recognize when there's something wrong. And because digital self-harm is still a pretty new concept, people who hurt themselves this way might not even realize that what they're doing really is self-harm.

There are lots of reasons people might feel an urge to hurt themselves. Usually, it's because they're trying to release extreme negative feelings that come from other mental health issues, like depression or low self-esteem. Often, people who self-harm say they want to punish themselves, or relieve unbearable mental tension.

And for some, it does lead to a few moments of relief. So they keep doing it. But hurting yourself does nothing to address the underlying problems or feelings of hurt, which can get worse and worse over time.

It's just … causing harm. The classic picture of self-harm involves physical injuries, like cuts and bruises, but it can be much more subtle than that — to the point that people don't even realize they're doing it. For example, overeating, or even over-exercising, can be a form of self-harm.

And now that we're in the digital age, psychologists have begun to see a new type of self-harm emerge — one that isn't physical. Digital self-harm is when you hurt yourself emotionally, using the anonymity of the internet to make it seem like you're being attacked. Think anonymous hate messages on platforms like Twitter or Tumblr, but instead of getting them from some random troll, you send them to yourself.

That doesn't mean every hate message you've seen online is a case of digital self-harm — unfortunately, cyberbullying is a very real issue. Just spend any amount of time in the comments section of a trending YouTube video … you know? Actually, just don't.

But sometimes people do send hate messages to themselves. It's surprisingly common. One 2017 study from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, which involved nearly 6,000 American middle and high school students, found that 6% had anonymously attacked themselves with mean comments online.

There was a slight difference between sexes, with about 7.1% of males and 5.3% of females saying they'd done it. And an earlier study from 2012 on about 600 students found that around 10% had some experience with digital self-harm. About half of those 10% said they did it very rarely, while the other half said they did it pretty often.

A quarter of them had sent themselves hate online for months at a time. If you don't have much experience with digital self-harm, this might be kind of hard to understand. I mean, the person doing it knows they're the one who sent the message, so what's the point?

Well, as you can probably imagine, there's no one simple explanation that fits everyone who sends themselves anonymous online hate. But like with physical self-harm, it's generally a way to express their negative feelings about themselves. And researchers have found some more specific themes, too.

Also like physical self-harm, digital self-harm is associated with depressive symptoms, as well as marginalizing factors like sexuality, drug use, and being bullied. Then there's the social media problem. We'd need a whole separate episode to get into the details, but researchers are finding all kinds of connections between social media and mental health issues.

Among other things, as more and more of our socializing is done online, it's gotten easier to become isolated. As much as social media is meant to connect us, it can leave us feeling pretty alone, too. And when people feel disconnected from others, they're more likely to develop negative feelings about themselves, or have depression or anxiety.

In a 2017 paper from the University of Manchester, researchers examined data from 2014 and found a massive increase in the number of teenage girls who reported self-harming. 77 out of every 10,000 girls practice self-harmed that year, as opposed to 46 out of 10,000 in the years leading up to 2014. That's an increase of 68%. The team suggested that part of the change might just come from increased awareness of self-harm — and therefore increased reporting of it.

But they argued that psychological pressure from social media was probably an important factor, too. This study didn't break things down into physical and digital self-harm, but it's but it's not too hard to imagine that added pressure from social media could lead to more self-harm via social media. So, this all tells us a little bit about how people use digital self-harm as a coping mechanism.

But what about the people who do it specifically because they want people to notice? Thinking about self-harm this way can be dangerous, because it's sometimes used to dismiss a sign that someone really needs help. But some researchers think there are cases where digital self-harm is, at least in part, a way for someone to get concern, attention, and admiration for their ability to cope.

It might even be a digital version of what's commonly known as Munchausen's syndrome, although its clinical name these days is factitious disorder. That's where someone fakes an illness to get care and attention from others. But when they get that concern, or admiration from others for their strength, it can actually mitigate some of their negative emotions and make them feel better.

So regardless of the motivation, it really comes down to the same thing — using self-harm as a way to deal with overwhelming feelings. We still need more studies to figure out how best to identify, reach, and treat people who use digital self-harm. But in the meantime, increasing awareness of it helps, too.

In the end, it doesn't really matter what form it takes — self-harm is self-harm. At best, it's an unhealthy coping mechanism, and at worst, it can be dangerous. But by recognizing the problem and getting help, you can learn better ways to deal with your feelings, and resolve the underlying issues that make you want to send yourself anonymous hate.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. If you're struggling with self-harm — in any form — there are links to resources and ways to get help in the description box below. And if you want to learn more about psychology and mental health, you can go to and subscribe. [♪ OUTRO ].