Experts agree that hateful messages directed at adolescents, which are often posted anonymously, have the potential to harm, from embarrassing or distressing their subject to encouraging suicide.
But those who go looking for the source of mean-spirited emails, texts or social media posts may be surprised to learn that sometimes the victim is also the perpetrator, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Florida Atlantic University, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Harsh posts about oneself are called "digital self-harm." And in a nationally representative survey of 5,593 middle- and high-school students ages 12 to 17, about 6 percent said they'd anonymously posted something mean about themselves online.
"Five or 6 percent isn't that big a deal — until you think about the millions of kids out there," said Justin W. Patchin, study author, who is a professor of criminal justice at University of Wisconsin and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center with the study's other author, Sameer Hinduja, of Florida Atlantic University. "That is not negligible."
Cyberbullying, which includes posting hurtful content about someone on digital channels, requires attention, regardless of its source, said Patchin. As he wrote in a blog about the research: "Any time a student experiences cyberbullying, there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Even if — no, especially if — the sender and the receiver are the same person."
In 2013, a girl named Hannah Smith, 14, from Leicestershire, England, made international news when she killed herself after having been cyberbullied. When investigators tried to locate the peers who targeted her, they were stunned to discover she'd been posting the hateful words herself. It wasn't the only news story like that, either, which piqued the researchers' interest, said Patchin. He and Hinduja added questions about digital self-harm to a survey they were conducting last year, to get a baseline understanding of how common it is.
Several of the findings surprised Patchin. While the cases that prompted the question involved girls, the study found boys were more likely to say they'd bullied themselves online — 7.1 percent of males to 5.3 percent of females. Typically, boys who self-harm are at the older end of the age range, while girls are at the younger end of that 12- to 17-year-old range. Digital self-harm was also more common than what they'd expected. "I thought it might be 1 or 2 percent," Patchin said.
About half who posted something mean about themselves said they only did it once, one-third did so a few times and 13 percent did it "many times."
Whites were more apt to post mean things about themselves than were African-Americans, who were more apt to do it than were Hispanics. Those who identified as nonheterosexual were three times more likely to post self-directed meanness online than heterosexual students and were 2.75 times more likely to say they cyberbullied themselves, the study said.
Youths who'd been cyberbullied were 12 times more likely to post bad things about themselves online compared to those who had not. Drug use and depression were among factors that increased likelihood of digital self-harm.
Just as more traditional self-harm like cutting and depression sometimes precede suicide attempts, Patchin and Hinduja write that "digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts." They say more study of the entire issue is needed.
Why adolescents self-troll is a question that likely has different, individual answers, the study said. Earlier research suggested youths do it to get attention of peers, but it found gender variations. "Interestingly, girls did it to prove they could handle it, encourage others to worry or get attention from adults, while boys did it because they are mad at someone and wanted to start a fight," Patchin and Hinduja wrote of past studies.
They note the negative messages posted by youths might also be used to seek empathy, show toughness or verify if "certain negative perceptions of them are universally shared by others and make their pain more visible and, consequently, more real." Almost half of those who responded to "why" in the new research referred to getting some reaction from others, including seeking validation that someone cares.
Merrill Kingston, a child psychologist at the Primary Children's Hospital Center for Counseling in Salt Lake City, who was not involved in the research, believes adolescents who self-harm have a hard time containing their feelings or knowing what to do with them. Digital self-harm may be an attempt to get those feelings out in the open without having to claim them.
"For adolescents who struggle with self-esteem or may have added-on unfortunate adverse childhood experiences, mental illness or other issues — their internal harsh critic can be very severe. One way of managing that is getting it out of yourself and putting it somewhere else," he said.
Kingston believes cyberbullying, regardless of its source, is "an opportunity to invite discussion." But he notes that children in the middle- to high-school age group may be less interested in input from parents than from peers. And a child who self-trolls "may be aware of the motivation or the kind of response they're looking for, or they may not be aware."
Either way, while it's an opportunity to invite discussion of what's going on in a youth's life, he warns that how a parent responds can be helpful or can "pour fuel on an unfortunate fire." Parents tend to have a protective nature that can be far from helpful if they become emotional.
They should ask questions in a way that lets the adolescent express thoughts and explore feelings. "If we respond in a critical, intense way or want to jump in and fix things or set limits, it's not opening a window of dialogue."
When kids are able to talk openly about situations, they are more likely to be resolved, he said.
Jordan Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Wasatch Family Therapy in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, believes parents should use their intuition to help them deal with cyberbullying, because they usually know their kids better than just about anyone.
Check in with them regularly and try to foster a relationship where conversations are common. That's crucial regardless of where the bullying originates and it can be powerful prevention.
"The worst thing you can do is not ask. If someone is being bullied or having suicidal thoughts, it's not going to increase because you talked about it. It's the exact opposite. Symptoms decrease," said Johnson, who was not involved in the research.
As for untangling who posted what, he suggests focusing on the message that was posted and how it made the child feel.
Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist in Newport, California, offers similar advice. "It could be a way to say 'I need help,'" she said, exposing inner torment that "leaves clues to what they want other people to notice."
The key, she adds, is "learning how to listen — for the purpose of responding and not reacting. … The more parents can get out of their head in a nonjudgmental, nonreactive way — you don't want to shut the child down — the more you can work with it."
Patchin said it's natural for parents to wonder what they should do when a child is being cyberbullied. It's very important to get all the information possible, he said, and not make too many assumptions.
While spreading rumors isn't a crime, if online threats are serious, law enforcement should be called. They can get an IP address, he said, and track the threat, whether from others or oneself.