Digital self harm has been in the media for the last few months following the death of Hannah Smith in the UK. Originally thought to be cyberbullying, it turned out the attacks on Hannah Smith on the ask.fm website were posted from Hannah’s own computer.

Despite the recent surge in attention, Digital Self Harm is not new. It is call for help and online communication has been used in this way at least since the days of IRC in the early 1990s. One of the main reasons online communication is popular is that it can provide anonymity  (a feature of ask.fm and many other sites) as well as access to an audience.

Digital Self Harm takes three basic forms:

  • Verbal abuse where a person puts themselves down, or posting anonymously to make it appear like they are being bullied
  • The second is an expression of physical abuse, for example sharing photographs of self harm (cutting for instance)
  • The third form of self harm may involve posting images of themselves that are degrading – for the purpose of harming themselves

In all cases, digital self harm it is both a cry for help and a way for people to express what they are feeling.  Self harm,  digital or otherwise, is a cry for people to pay attention. Most of us have found our lives are busier and our attention spans shorter. This pushes those seeking attention to take more extreme approaches.

Unlike cyberbullying or online hate speech, Digital Self Harm does not involve the abuse of a communication platform to harm others. As a result, the responsibility of platform providers is different:

  • In the case of cyberbullying, the platform provider becomes part of the problem when it creates an environment that allows some people to attack others and fails to provide adequate safe guards. When the platform provider also gets in the way of an effective response by law enforcement or others, that exacerbates the problem.
  • In the case of online racism, it isn’t the platform’s fault users try and post hate speech, but how the platform responds, and whether this encourages or discourages such attacks, is something for which the platforms must be held accountable.
  • In the case of Digital Self Harm, the platform is providing a means of expression, and so long as that expression is not being used to harm others, there is a much stronger argument in favour of freedom of expression.

Platform providers can, however,  do more to connect those who are at risk with organisations who can provide support. They can also do more to educate users on how to respond when they suspect someone may be at risk.

In the case of digital self harm, the online world is just the means of expression. The real response needs to be back in the real world. In needs open channels of communication, and it networks of support, not only for those at risk, but for their friends and families who will themselves come under emotional pressure as they try and respond. Digital self harm is not an online problem, but a window into a real world problem.

OHPI’s CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, discussed digital self harm on Light FM, a Melbourne based Community Radio Station in October 2013: