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Self-Cyberbullying: Teenagers’ Cries for Help Go Digital

“Your face is why filters were invented.”

“Are you Jabba the gutt?”

“I never date sluts like you.”

Ahh, just another day spent strolling through the mean streets of the comments section.

But the craziest part about these comments is, if new research is correct, some of these jabs were posted by teens…about themselves.

The Cruelty of the Comments Section

In a digital age that offers human nature the option of anonymous trolling, harsh comments are a guarantee. Sometimes, mean comments – a form of cyberbullying – cause kids to just roll their eyes; they mutter “idiot” under their breath and move on. However, sometimes these mean comments can push youth to take their own lives. More than 40% of today’s kids endure some sort of online bullying, and they aren’t alone. Even celebrities experience cyberbullying.

Interestingly though, new research supported by the Journal of Adolescent Health has found that some of the negative, harsh, and damaging comments posted on a kid’s social media account are self-inflicted. In the study, which involved almost 5,600 students from various middle and high schools (ages 12 to 17) around the country, 6% of those surveyed admitted to posting hateful comments on their own posts. In other words…some kids were trolling themselves! Furthermore, the research revealed that over half of that same 6% admitted to “self-cyberbullying” on multiple occasions. (By the way, this study wasn’t the first to document “digital self-harm”; a related survey from 2012 revealed similar findings.)

Granted, 6% may not sound like much, but that represents several million kids from Generation Z. Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez-Ziegler, a child psychologist practicing in Denver, has come across this phenomenon in the lives of some of her young patients. Speaking anonymously about one of her young female patients who’s committed self-cyberbullying, Gonzalez-Ziegler said the girl, “feared being mocked by her peers. She thought their teasing wouldn’t be so bad if she beat them to the punch.” While caring adults can probably empathize with that sentiment, most would also agree it’s not a good strategy for dealing with peer pressure and criticism.

Currently, not much is known about this self-destructive tendency. Perhaps kids view self-cyberbullying the same way they do cutting: as a pressure relief valve for pain. It’s a cry for help that draws attention to oneself in the attempt to “interrupt negative feelings,” for example, depression, anxiety, upsets, failures, etc. Regardless of the reason(s), teenagers probably don’t realize the damage they’re doing to their reputations as they seek solutions to their problems.

Preventing Personal Sabotage

Wise parents and youth workers want to know what’s being said about the kids sitting on couches in our living rooms and youth group rooms, but we also need to know what’s being posted about them in online environments. Technology has rushed to try and solve this problem; apps to help adults monitor teens’ online behavior and interactions are everywhere, but they have received mixed reviews from those who use them. While these kinds of tools can certainly be of some benefit, we can’t delegate care and nurture to an app…or another person. Here are a few ideas that will help parents and youth workers take personal responsibility for preventing self-sabotage in the lives of kids we love.

  1. Take time to scroll through the comments section. If you’re a parent or youth worker that monitors what your kids post online, great! If not, you should seriously consider starting that practice…after giving them an honest and compassionate heads up. But it’s not enough to just read what they post, or swipe through the pics they share; we need to take the time to see what other kids are saying in response. Yes, there are dangers that stem from posting inappropriate pics, but there are dangers that can result from stupid or harsh comments, too. It only takes another 15 seconds – if that – to check out other kids’ interactions, so make that small investment.
  2. Make sure your kids know the truth about themselves. If you discover that your kid is enduring harsh comments from others – or themselves – make sure they know the truth about who and what they are. It doesn’t matter what insult or slur is flung their way (ugly, fat, unable, etc.), the underlying message is that they are worthless. While that’s certainly not true, hearing that lie over and over again will take its toll on young hearts and minds. Here’s a great resource you can use to help kids understand the value God has ascribed to them. The Bible offers plenty of references concerning how God sees us: Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 12:6-7, and Ephesians 2:4-9 just to name a few. Make sure your kids are getting a healthy dose of truth on a regular basis.

No matter what you do, how carefully you monitor the world around your kids, and how diligent you strive to be, setbacks will happen. In those times, make sure your kids have full access to you to help process the moments of pain. We can’t allow them to wade through the harshness alone. Don’t let anyone abuse them through hurtful comments, but don’t allow them to whittle away at their minds with self-inflicted wounds, either.

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Self-Cyberbullying: Teenagers’ Cries ...

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