Invisible warning signs: virtual self-harm

Ken Corish discusses virtual self-harm and how teachers can identify and respond to the warning signs

‘Self-harm’ is usually defined by physical injuries that are auto-inflicted, such as ‘cutting’, over or under-eating and substance abuse. The internet however, has given rise to a new form of self-abuse, conducted through social media sites to inflict emotional or psychological harm. This can manifest in two ways: ‘self-baiting’, where the victim posts an inflammatory comment to an online community in pursuit of inciting aggressive responses towards themselves; and ‘online self-harm’, where the victim creates false social media profiles to send offensive or insulting messages to their main profile, simulating third-party abuse. Both forms are used to reinforce the negative feelings the victims have about themselves, and validate their low self-esteem. 

Several recent studies have been carried out to establish just how common online self-harm has become. In a study of over 600 students by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre at Bridgewater State University (MARC), they found that around 9 per cent had engaged in some form of virtual self-harm; most claimed that they had only done so once or twice, but others admitted to more frequent activity. Dr dinah boyd [sic] identified three main reasons for virtual self-harm: A cry for help, an attempt to look cool, or trying to trigger compliments by peers. The main issue in online bullying is that it is very difficult to distinguish self-baiting from trolling, or self-harm from cyberbullying, as the reasons behind the abuse and where it originates from can be hard to trace.  

The online environment can help these vulnerable young people find a community of support, and  is generally a very positive influence in young lives. However, it can also be a minefield of poor advice and negative reinforcement, which may normalise these self-destructive behaviours’

The main thing to remember is that virtual self-harm is motivated by the same factors that incite physical self-harm, and that the underlying psychological factors and warning signs will often manifest in the same way. For example, indications of vulnerability and inclination towards self-harm may include withdrawal, escalating arguments or incidents with peers, missing school or showing signs of low self-esteem. The online environment can help these vulnerable young people find a community of support, and  is generally a very positive influence in young lives. However, it can also be a minefield of poor advice and negative reinforcement, which may normalise these self-destructive behaviours. Certain websites will promote self-harming as “cool”, and for children without the digital literacy skills to assess the validity of the content, these sites can be extremely dangerous. Identifying vulnerable children and taking the online environment into account during interventions is essential to tackling the underlying factors of self-harm in all of its forms. 

Technology and the internet are thoroughly embedded into the lives of young people today, so making sure they have an understanding of how best to approach online material is vital. Professionals need to teach children how to function sensibly and safely as part of the online community; to promote a positive digital reputation. They should inspire and cultivate resilience and critical thinking skills so that young people can appreciate the veracity of websites and online material. Through appropriate CPD, safeguarders should be empowered to build an awareness of the content available online so that they can understand the potential risks and incorporate them into their wider intervention schemes. Instead of banning or condemning the internet, the positive experiences that can be had through online engagement – entertainment, empowerment and creativity – should be accentuated in a productive intervention.

There are many excellent outlets for advice on self-harm. SelfHarmUK provides an anonymous forum for parents and children to post about their experiences, through which they receive advice and support from mental health experts and child protection practitioners. In terms of online self-harm, schools must establish robust reporting methods, both passive and active. Active reporting routes allow pupils to report incidents or concerns anonymously, through which schools can gather intelligence. Passive reporting routes can also be set up to cast an electronic ear across the wider online community to pick up on publicly open social content relating to particular key words, triggers and children’s names. It can often signpost indicators that allow early intervention with more vulnerable children. 

Ken Corish is online safety manager for SWGfL and senior manager of the UK Safer Internet Centre.

To find out more about BOOST, SWGfL’s comprehensive online safety toolkit built especially for schools, visit   


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Thursday 4 November 2021, 11am (GMT)