How many teenagers are using Ask.fm to self-harm?

Some of the young people experiencing online abuse will be sending it to themselves, writes Hazel Robinson. That doesn't make their pain any less real - but it should inform how we approach the subject.

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.

This piece was originally posted on Hazel's tumblr, and has been edited and republished here with her permission.

Photograph: Getty Images

Hazel is a long-time internet inhabitant who writes about popular culture, marginalisation and feelings about comics.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”