Digital Self-harm: What Parents Need to Know

Digital Self-harm: What Parents Need to Know

Self-harm is defined as the infliction of pain onto oneself and can be seen as a symptom of several different mental health disorders, especially in adolescents. Self-harm behaviors typically include restrictive and binge eating, cutting, hitting, scratching, burning, and picking. There are a variety of reasons why people may self-harm and research suggests that these are the most common:

  • Expressing or coping with emotional distress
  • Trying to feel in control
  • A way of punishing oneself
  • Relieving emotional tension or pain

Digital self-harm

Developmental and Clinical Psychologists are trying to understand more about a relatively new form of self-harm. Digital self-harm is defined as the anonymous or pseudonymous posting of negative or hurtful content towards oneself on the internet or social media platforms. This type of self-harm focuses on emotional harm rather than physical and has been found to be most common in adolescents.


Researchers estimate that a minimum of 10% of all adolescents engage in digital self-harm, also referred to as self cyber-bullying. Further, there is a strong positive association between bullying victimization, negative emotions, and digital self-harm. With the average 12-18 year old reporting spending over 8 hours a day on electronic devices, there is reason to worry that this number will increase. Many researchers suggest that boys are more likely to engage in digital self-harm than girls.

Risk Factors

Research is ongoing regarding the risk factors for those who engage in digital self-ham behaviors. As of 2022, these factors appear to be the biggest risks:

  • History of school bullying
  • History of cyber bullying
  • Sexual orientation (those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual appear to be more likely to report the behavior)
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • History of physical-self harm behaviors


Treatment for self-harm behaviors, including digital self-harm, can include a combination of skill building and cognitive restructuring using both Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Some examples of skills learned in these therapies include:

  • Emotion Regulation
  • Identification of self-harm triggers and alternative behaviors
  • Problem solving
  • Boosting self esteem
  • Stress management
  • Improving social and relationship skills

Bottom Line

Digital-self harm is a relatively new and less understood form of self-harm that appears to be on the rise in adolescents. As in other types of self-harm, emotional pain is a major trigger for engaging in the destructive behavior.  It is important for parents to be educated about digital-self harm and help their child seek help if they are concerned about their mental health.