The latest threat to student safety: digital self-harm

Self-harm is a phenomenon that affects all teens, but it has nearly tripled among girls ages 10-14 since 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control — and now there is a new form of this dangerous behavior that K-12 leaders should be aware of: “digital self-harm.”

Unlike physical self-abuse such as cutting or burning oneself, digital self-harm is a form of psychological abuse that involves posting hurtful comments about oneself from a separate, self-created social media account. In essence, teens and adolescents are cyber-bullying themselves, as Education Week reports.

In a 2017 survey of nearly 6,000 students ages 12 to 17, about 6 percent admitted to having engaged in digital self-harm. Often, this behavior stems from a desire for attention, but it can also indicate feelings of self-hatred or low self-esteem, researchers say.

Because of the anonymous nature of the Internet, digital self-harm can be hard to detect. But if students are engaging in digital self-harm from a school-issued device, having a school Internet filter that can decrypt SSL web traffic and trace which students were using which specific websites or web-based applications when the cyber-bullying occurred could help administrators investigate the incident. 

If administrators can determine that students are posting insults about themselves, they can get students the help they need to ensure that this self-destructive behavior doesn’t continue.

A separate but somewhat related threat to student safety involves viral Internet games that challenge teens and pre-teens to complete a series of escalating tasks that are often dangerous and involve self-harm — culminating in a final dare to commit suicide.

One such example, the Blue Whale Challenge, dates back to 2016. In recent months, a new game called the “Momo Challenge” has emerged.

The Momo Challenge is believed to be spreading through the free messaging service WhatsApp, although references to the game have also appeared on social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The Washington Post reports that Momo is believed to be linked to at least three suicides in Asia and South America this year, two of which involved 12-year-old girls.

K-12 educators and administrators should talk to students about the dangers of playing online games that encourage increasingly outrageous behaviors. Students should be explicitly taught to ignore any challenges that put themselves or others at risk, whether these occur in person or online — and they should also learn to report such instances of online behavior to a parent, school official, or other authority.

In addition, having a school Internet filter that can decrypt SSL web traffic at speeds that don’t slow down network usage can help school leaders identify whether students are searching for terms such as “Momo” online. To learn more about ContentKeeper’s industry-leading web filter and  SSL decryption capabilities, click here.

The former editor of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce has 20 years of experience writing about education and technology.