Self-harming pupils `encourage' trolls to abuse them online

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Fresh approach needed to tackle complex social media behaviour

Teachers are being urged to rethink their approach to cyberbullying in light of an emerging trend where children use the internet to self-harm.

Internet experts have identified the growing phenomenon of "self-baiting", where young people post provocative comments online in order to attract abuse from their peers. This reinforces their negative perception of themselves - a form of self-harm.

There are concerns that a conventional approach to online trolling and bullying may wrongly castigate those taking part in the abuse, who may be just as much the victims as the targets of their comments.

Ken Corish, online safety manager for the South West Grid for Learning, said there was an increasing recognition of some of the complex ways that young people were using the internet. "Someone might go into a [online] community where they know they're going to get responses and say contentious, aggressive things so the negative commentary they get back reinforces the negative feelings they have about themselves," he said.

"They feel they must be bad, they must be worthless, because of what people are saying about them. It's as if the feelings they have about themselves are confirmed and they're as bad as they thought - they're not imagining it."

An inquest into the death of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old found dead in her room in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, in 2013, found that she had probably been responsible for posting "vile" messages about herself on the website.

Those involved in self-baiting go a step further by enlisting the unwitting help of a third party in order to self-harm. Self-baiters also often post their comments on forums used by their schoolfriends, ensuring that the abuse will continue at school.

The phenomenon differs from other forms of self-harm because it is not anonymous or hidden. This could make it hard for others to feel sympathy for those provoking attacks, Mr Corish said.

"The person who is doing this isn't necessarily hiding their identity. They're feeding on the negativity that is coming back to them," he said. "It seems to be important that people know who you are, so you get the negative feeling directed at you."

He said that self-baiting challenged the conventional approach in schools to online bullying and trolling, which was to see the perpetrators as in the wrong and requiring punishment.

"This kind of linear approach isn't necessarily the best intervention," he said. "We need to look at the underlying causes, rather than just jumping on the activities."

Keep an open mind

Self-baiting behaviour was first identified by social media scholar Danah Boyd but is still relatively unknown outside academic circles.

"The way people use technology changes very quickly and we need to imagine the ways that self-harm might manifest itself online and how that might change," said Will Gardner, chief executive of Childnet International, which works in schools to promote safer internet use. "Rather than having a specific remedy [for bullying], it is important to keep an open mind and potentially treat it as a mental health issue."

He said that schools should also encourage pupils to keep an eye on what their friends were posting online to pick up signals that their behaviour was putting them at risk.

But while it was important for teachers to try to understand why children posted provocative comments, they should be cautious about linking all cyberbullying to self-baiting, Mr Gardner said. "These issues do arise but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for not trying to prevent bullying. I wouldn't want people to think all bullying was [related to] self-baiting."

Mr Corish said schools had a key role to play in identifying self-baiting and looking at the reasons for it. They could also help by supporting young people to develop self-awareness around their online behaviour and giving them strategies to manage it.

"We need to get a lot better at understanding who are the real victims and the contribution of the wider social community," he added.

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