'I wrote vile messages to myself'
Cyber-bullying is bad enough, but children are increasingly posting harmful comments about themselves.
Published 24/02/2016 | 02:30
In a nondescript bedroom, a sombre-looking girl holds up a message that seems to have been hastily scribbled on the back of a homework assignment.
The words "Roast Me" next to her photograph are an invitation for users of the social network site Reddit to annihilate the girl's appearance, from her glasses to her hair style.
Minutes after the selfie, titled: "I'm 15" is posted, there is a feeding frenzy of comments beneath it, vicious to the point of being unprintable.
"Are your glasses a substitute for your lack of personality?" asks one commenter. Another writes, "When your parents found out that you were cutting yourself, I bet they went out and bought sharper razors".
The only rule in this online bear pit, where users compete to make the cruellest remark, is that those posting must be over 13 and they must hold up the sign, to show the picture was not uploaded by anyone else.
This month, a report launched for Safer Internet Day revealed that a quarter of 13 to 18-year-olds had been abused online. One in 25 said they were singled out for insults "all or most of the time".
As parents, we are growing sadly used to frightening headlines about cyberbullies and trolls invading our children's bedrooms via their smartphones. But absurd as it may sound, it's now becoming clear that there is another source: some of our children are bullying themselves, either by adopting fake online identities or inviting strangers to do it for them.
It's a phenomenon known as cyber self-harm.
In one study of 600 students, US researchers found that almost one in 10 had posted toxic remarks about themselves online.
Such behaviour first came to light in the UK three years ago, when 14-year-old Hannah Smith, from Lutterworth, Leicestershire, killed herself in her bedroom after messages such as "go die", "get cancer" and "drink bleach" were posted to her profile on anonymous question-and-answer site Askfm. At the inquest into her death, the coroner concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the vile messages "would all have been at Hannah's own hand".
So why would any young person say such vile things about themselves so publicly - using words, rather than razors, to inflict harm themselves? Self-trolling can pre-empt criticism from others and help express the self-loathing teens feel for not measuring up to the high standards of physical perfection they set for themselves.
"Bringing this pain out into the open can make it feel more real and important," says Rachel Welch, a counsellor from Freedom From Harm.
Furthermore, in an online world where self-worth can depend on the number of likes you get for a picture, posting remarks from mean "strangers" can attract compliments from otherwise indifferent peers.
This self-harm is even harder to spot than the physical hurt that young people inflict on themselves. Figures supplied by Temple Street Children's University Hospital showed that of the 12,688 children and adolescents under 16 who attended in the first three months of 2015, 70 had a suicidal intent/self-harm diagnosis.
But Owen Connolly, consultant psychologist at Connolly Counselling Centre in Stillorgan, says self-harm does not have to be physical to be damaging:
"From the age of 13, teenagers are already looking at themselves with a magnifying glass - it only takes one person to point out something that rings true. Cyber self-harm is just an extension of physical self-harm such as cutting. It's every bit as hidden and destructive."
While most social media sites go to great lengths to remove offensive content, they rely on being made aware of it in the first place. This is less likely to happen when such content has been posted by the target.
Ellie*, now 19, admits that when she was 15, she went on Askfm to pose questions and invite answers. Having posted queries such as: "What is the best thing about me?", she would then log back on under the alter ego "Staceeey" and remark: "Nothing. You are no one."
"I knew it was me writing that stuff, but on screen it wasn't me," she says. "My own posts would say I was ugly, I was useless, I wasn't loved... all the stuff going round in my head. My friends were trying to stick up for me against these mysterious trolls, so to keep up I had to post insulting messages about them, too.
"It was killing me to see them get so angry on my behalf, and I knew I had to stop. But it was never about hurting people. It was about hurting myself."
After a number of teen suicides were linked to Askfm, the site is under new management and has tightened its controls. But the self-abuse migrated elsewhere. On Tumblr, a scrap-book style website for pictures, videos and comments, dozens of blogs are given over to outpourings of self-loathing by people, which are then shared by like-minded youngsters.
Back on Reddit, there are plenty more young people ready to be "roasted".
A small boy with shaggy hair, asks "Help me cry myself to sleep". Another, of about 14, appeals for users to "destroy what little self-esteem I have left". A startled, pudgy-faced girl of no more than 13 is being told she is a "fat-faced whore". Even if these situations are created by the young people themselves, the anguish they express is real. More than anything, cyber self-harm is a stark reminder that no one judges our children more harshly than they do themselves.
*Some names have been changed. If you need help, call Childline on 1800 66 66 66