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A New Year ‘digital detox’ is being called for as the ‘dark side of digital self-harm’ has been unveiled in a peer reviewed paper.

Written by Myra Small, staff nurse from Northampton’s psychiatric hospital St Andrew’s Healthcare, and Dr Pras Ramluggun, a Senior Mental Health Researcher from Oxford Brookes University, the evidence and practice review paper has looked at the implications of how self-destructive online behaviour can affect adolescents.

The paper provides guidance to mental health practitioners who work with young people about signs of digital self-harm as this could be harmful for their long-term health with tragic consequences if missed.

This is because research has shown that negative online activity is feeding low-self-worth among young adults who are posting damaging content about themselves for many different reasons such a cry for help or seeking sympathy.

Digital self-harm was first reported in 2013 shortly after 14-year-old Hannah Smith killed herself. Initially cyberbullies were blamed for her suicide, until further investigation revealed that most of the malicious content online that she had been exposed to had actually been written by Hannah herself.   

Myra said: “In recent years, we’ve seen an emerging trend which has become known as digital self-harm. A relatively new concept and hard for some to understand, it essentially involves adolescents sending themselves hurtful comments online on a public forum, often as a means to cope with interpersonal and psychological issues.

“The concern we have is that unlike physical self-harm where injuries can usually be seen and treated, digital self-harm is not so easy to identify because there is no physicality to it. So we’re calling on healthcare professionals, teachers, parents and anybody else who come into regular contact with adolescents to be aware of this issue and to encourage a digital detox.”

Dr Ramluggun said: “When used properly, with a positive approach, social media can be a wonderfully engaging and facilitating tool that can bring together adolescents with common interests. But, with most things on the internet nowadays it has a dark side, and sadly it can have a hugely detrimental impact on someone’s mental health, particularly someone who may already have been exposed to trauma or abuse of some kind.

“We recommend that anyone who cares for adolescents should seek to incorporate these platforms into their lives so they have an awareness of different patterns of online activity.

“Healthcare professionals within the mental health sector should focus on creating empathetic and trusting relationships with their young patients, ensuring their approach is non-judgemental, while also applying respectful curiosity when enquiring about the use of their patient’s social media.”

The study paper ‘Understanding digital self-harm and its implications for mental health practice’ has been published in the Royal College of Nursing’s Mental Health Practice journal.

To read the paper in full, click here.