Schools and parents hear lots about bullying and about self-harm, but you may be less aware of ‘self-harm bullying’ – a process by which children and young people are encouraged by others to harm themselves, or worse. It sounds awful, but it’s important for schools and parents to be aware of this trend and provide appropriate guidance.
Self-harm is traditionally more associated with secondary students, but it’s something that’s now affecting younger children too; NHS Digital reported last year that 107 children between the ages 3 and 9 were taken to hospital due to self-harming between 2016 and 2017.
To find out more about children’s online lives and devise appropriate guidance for teachers, LGfL DigiSafe carried out its own online safety survey of around 40,000 pupils across the UK; half of those surveyed attended primary school, with the majority of respondents (80%) made up of pupils in years 5 to 9.
We asked pupils ‘Have you ever seen anything that encourages people to hurt themselves?’, which highlighted the striking statistic that yes, almost one in six pupils (primary and secondary alike) had seen something encouraging self-harm.
Against a background of headlines concerning ‘self-harm epidemics’ and GPs and schools reporting major increases in cutting, overdosing on pills and burning, we expected to hear about online material from groups encouraging cutting or eating disorders (the latter known as ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’). Whilst both issues did feature, there were more prominent concerns for school staff.
We found that one in four pupils had been bullied online, while one in 13 admitted to having been the bully. More surprising was our discovery from pupils free-text responses of how closely self harm and bullying now seem to be linked. Again and again, we’d read comments along the following lines: “People get told to commit suicide and sent pictures with the ‘correct’ way to do it.”
It’s been common for bullying to include calls to ‘go kill yourself,’ but recent evidence indicates that such incidents are now often followed by instructions, images, or even videos on how to do so. Given the existing links between bullying and self-harm or suicide, this is especially troubling.
The key technology players must do more to actively remove self-harm material from their platforms, via both human moderation and automated means. At LGfL, we’ve welcomed the government’s efforts at building on its previously published Internet Safety Strategy and addressing some of the issues identified in our own Hopes and Streams report.
Another positive move has been the introduction of ‘Education for a Connected World’ – a digital resilience framework developed by the UK Council for Internet Safety.
It’s vital that school management teams continue to understand and respond appropriately to the current trends that surround these challenging issues. Increasing awareness of ‘self-harm’ bullying and other forms of online harm is the first step towards combating their effects.
Mark Bentley is online safety and safeguarding manager at The London Grid for Learning.