This piece contains graphic descriptions of self harm.
You would have had to be living under some kind of proverbial internet rock in order to have missed the recent push to address online abuse. Very high profile people have been bringing forward the torrent of sexually violent and threatening abuse which is levelled daily at anyone who sticks their neck above the online barricade.
At the culmination of it, tragically, a fourteen-year-old girl called Hannah Smith took her own life last week after being continuously barraged with abuse on Ask.FM, a site where users can create a profile page and then be sent questions/comments on it by other users and anonymous visitors. Her wall was flooded with messages telling her to kill herself, drink bleach, harm herself and that she was worthless, ugly, stupid, awful. The worst things you can imagine being sent to an insecure or anxious teenager (and are there any teenagers who aren’t?) in an environment where it’s easy to draw a correlation between the severity of the abuse sent, the desperation of a young girl and the eventual decision to take her life.
What people are shocked by is the subsequent claim from Ask.FM’s administrators that much of the abuse (although by no means all) was sent by Hannah, to herself, anonymously. According to the admins, "98 per cent" of the abusive messages came from the same IP address as Hannah's (which is the location of your computer on the internet) and were directly traceable. Hannah's father accused the site's executives of trying to "cover their backs". "They would say that, wouldn’t they?", he told the Sunday Times.
It’s easy to understand how, to a grieving parent, to many of the people following the story, this seems obscene. A vile accusation by Ask.FM’s administrators to attempt to pass the buck, a terrible thing to level against a girl who was clearly suffering. This is precisely one of the problems with the way we think about the online world and the way that people exist in it. Which is why I am writing this.
While we can never know exactly what happened in Hannah Smith's case, I can tell you that teenagers send themselves abusive messages every day. So do older people. Why? Well, because it’s a form of self-harm. And I am going to talk about why that is and what it is, now.
Razor blades and bruised wrists
The image of self-harm is decades out of date. Ritchie Manics’ carved-into forearm, razor blades and bruised wrists. Girl, Interrupted: visceral and physical and raw and bloody. That's how we think of self-harm, rather than something which occurs in cyberspace, something almost nebulous, electronic.
It's hard to explain the particular niches of the online world, and their communities, to outsiders. How many people know what Tumblr is, outside of Tumblr? I mean, really know what Tumblr is, past the level of "it’s a website?" I'm an online sort of person, I’ve been hanging around the internet since the 90s, I met most of my friends through social media. And until last week, I’d never heard of Ask.FM. Why? Because I’m old, because I don’t do whatever it is is you do to be engaged with it, because my social circles would be more likely to use Formspring for that. And I’m an internet person.
There are hundreds of social media websites that are used by people to a greater or lesser degree of nicheness and unless you’re astonishingly specialist in your profession or you really have nothing else to do, there’s no way that you’d know them all. Especially no way that you’d understand all of their communication methods, whether they allowed anonymous comments, who the users are and what they do.
Self-harm is an expression of a lot of things. There’s no one thing it means. I know - I have the lattice of silvery, matted scar tissue all over my thighs to offer as my credentials. I’ve got the acrylic nails I have to wear to, even now, stop myself absentmindedly tearing my own hands to pieces, I’ve got a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil that’s rust-coloured from blood absorption. Sometimes it’s frustration and anger. Sometimes it’s self-hatred and a visceral need to act out violence upon one’s own body, whether out of loathing for your physicality or some mental torment over things you have done or things you fear about yourself.
Sometimes it’s the routine, boring activity of mental illness; you’ve got home, so you’ll slice your thighs for an hour, do something else for a bit and then 10pm back to sort out any areas you’ve missed. You regard it as work, occasionally – "oh, better just top up the bit by my knee."
If you think I’m being glib, I’m not. My right leg doesn’t work properly – the muscle is so shredded, so deeply that a keloid scar disrupts my quadricep and aches, yanking tendons around. I do not think that self-harm is funny.
But some of the situations and reasons and emotions that people experience when they are at risk of or already harming themselves are things that can sound so alien to someone who hasn’t experienced it that they sound like jokes.
How could you regard a razorblade as homework? This is why we call it mental illness. Profound distress, deep pain, a total abstraction from "normality" (sometimes, only in short bursts): people who self-harm can often look totally happy and healthy when they are not in the space in which they hurt themselves. They have a double-life affair with pain.
I want you to understand this stuff because in order to answer why a fourteen year old girl might send herself thousands of abusive, anonymous messages, you need to get that self-harm is habit forming. That it becomes normalised to the person who is subjecting themselves to it. Mundane, even dislikable. Like the washing up, it’s something that you come to believe you simply do. Sometimes in a frenzy, sometimes as habit.
I’m not talking about old school self-harm, here. Not that it’s gone and forgotten. No, not in the slightest – cutting is on the rise, especially amongst young people, and the habit, in terms of the socialised norms of depression and mental illness, is not going away.
The modern version
As with all things in 2013, though, there’s an app for it now. I wasn’t born on the internet but people ten years younger than me were, not in some particularly brave livestream but in the sense that they have lived their entire lives connected. Their parents announced their birth by email, maybe. If they’re under ten then there’s a good chance their pre-natal scans might have gone on Facebook. The internet and the channels through which they access it (laptop, phone, whatever) are as much part of them as their voice, their hands.
It’s true for a lot of us older digital natives too, but the depth of the integration is growing at such a pace that I, as a 26-year-old who works in IT, can’t always keep up with it. So it’s understandable that psychology also hasn’t, but that lack of keeping pace, that closeted ignorance, is putting (in particular) young people at real risk.
You see, I can think of maybe four or five young people I’ve encountered on Tumblr who I would (non-judgementally, analytically) suspect have sent themselves anonymous abuse messages in order to express their self-hatred, attack themselves through the abstraction of answering anonymous aggression. It’s easy to do – just have an additional browser where you’re not signed in to Tumblr and leave your inbox open to anonymous things. Cleaner than a razorblade, its simple to express your self-loathing through an avatar of external hatred.
How do I know that some people, especially young people, send themselves anonymous abuse on Tumblr? Honestly, it’s a hunch. But I’ve got good instincts for this and it’s one I’ve got a lot of confidence in – some of it is to do with timing, some is pattern recognition and a strong gut feeling. I’m not a psychologist and I would never ask someone whether the abuse they receive is from other people or themselves. Either way, it’s genuinely abusive and it’s genuinely causing them significant harm so the distinction is more-than-half meaningless.
We would never think that the fact that people cut themselves with razorblades negates that people also use them to attack each other. Or that abusers don't also use them to attack their victims. We don’t look at someone who physically self-harms and assume that this means they have never had someone else hurt them. We understand that the existence of self-harm does not negate the existence of harm inflicted by others.
I want to make it clear: just because some anonymous messages of abuse are sent by the victim, as an act of public self-harm, a cry for help or a way of berating and abusing themselves does not IN ANY WAY negate the fact that many, many abusive messages are sent by vindictive, cowardly bullies.
Online harm is real harm
I wrote a while ago about the fact I don’t get anonymous hate – it’s because I’m no kind of fun target, I’m too big and hairy and used to comments on my music reviews telling me to kill myself. But the fact I’ve grown my skin so thick I’m surprised my earrings haven’t popped out doesn’t mean that anyone should have to, that the online world shouldn’t be expected to be a safe place and that people who tell other people to kill themselves and send disgusting messages to them from the siege tower of anonymity aren’t behaving appallingly and in many cases, criminally.
We need to look at online harm as real harm, whether it’s self-inflicted or from an external aggressor. Someone who is in distress and receives thousands of messages telling them to kill themselves is at as much risk of very serious physical harm to themselves as someone who is subject to physical abuse of any kind. We urgently need to understand this as a situational symptom to mental distress; “how many times have you been told, by yourself or other people, that you would be better off dead today?” For some children on Tumblr, it’s in the hundreds.
This is stuff that is treatable with legal action and technological ability to block and ban abuse from the aggressor’s side (if they are external) and with CBT techniques and non-judgemental, educated therapy for the victim and/or their internal abuser. Tumblr went a long way with this with the ability to report users as at risk of suicide but there is a massive hole in the treatments and understanding offered to young people when it comes to the spheres, bodies and ways in which they might be harmed by others or by themselves.
If someone is being harassed in Habbo Hotel, it matters. It matters like they’re being harassed in the street, if Habbo Hotel is somewhere that they psychologically inhabit. And social media is somewhere where we set up shop, create a body that can be injured. Banning and prohibiting is not the solution here. Instead, better public consciousness and much more developed academic and clinical understanding is essential to protecting children and vulnerable adults.
Do psychologists understand this? I don’t know. Some will, of course. But it’s not in the textbooks, it’s not part of NHS policy, it’s not something that’s pervasive within the perception of ways in which people can be subject to harm.
In a talk about cyberpunk at the Nine Worlds convention this weekend, a neuroscientist explained that one of the problems with academic and clinical developments is that unless it’s being done for a major company (and, realistically, even then) the speed of development and recognition of new treatments and environments is slowed by the need to constantly publish, to distract oneself, to narrow one’s focus. As a result, by the time CBT techniques approved for use with children acknowledge cyber self-harm it’s going to be too late for at least a few of them.
We need to understand this now, we need to talk about it now. We need to not shame people who hurt themselves this way. We need to identify the harmful, criminal behaviour of people who seek to hurt others this way. And we need to drop our disbelief and stop failing children and vulnerable people who experience this harm.