The Age

Digital self-harm: teens tap out an online cry for help

Posted by on Aug 20, 2013 in The Age | 1 comment

In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to ”drink bleach” and ”die” – on the social media site Ask.fm. Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying. Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses. While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this? Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to 10 per cent of first-year university students had ”falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”. And this is not the first time that online ”self-harassment” or ”self-cyberbullying” has been identified and written about. In 2010, Danah Boyd, a leading social media researcher, wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ”anonymously” posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them. In a similar vein, research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders – has discovered that it is not uncommon for members on these forums to be aggressive against themselves, by writing abusive, hateful and vicious letters and then attributing those letters to made-up personas known as either ”Ana” or ”Mia” (anorexia or bulimia). So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it? According to Boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience or a way of fishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behaviour as a form of ”digital self-harming”, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others; very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on. For the ”digital self-harmer” the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a ”loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally? Second, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more” ‘real’ ”. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ”under attack”, the afflicted individual is able to communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: ”I’m in pain, I need your help.” What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured, the feelings they speak to are very much real. Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behaviour are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one...

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Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 in The Age | 0 comments

Just like the all-knowing, ominous voices in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, every festive season concerned commentators apparate to warn us about the imminent dangers of Christmas shopping for children — especially for little girls. Lego releases a new range of pink blocks for girls? Beware of buying into limiting gender stereotypes. Disney has launched a new pint-sized princess? Girls are doomed to a future of passivity and reliance on male rescuing. Your daughter wants a Bratz doll? Well you might as well give up right now. Of course there are numerous toy ranges that are unarguably sexualised and “adultified” — everything from Baby Bratz in lingerie to scantily clad vampire-wannabees courtesy of Monster High. Then there is the “tyranny” of pink; to peruse the girls’ aisles in the toy shop you would be forgiven for thinking little girls were cognitively unable to respond to any colour that is not associated with sugar, spice and all things nice. But while there are legitimate concerns, is the extent of the worrying all that proportionate? And is it actually productive? As educators who work with young women, we know it is vital to give girls the skills to deconstruct the gender messages they receive along with their much-loved dolls. Cultural goods are not “values free” and there are certainly some questionable toys being marketed to our girls. And yet, to listen to the rhetoric of how “toys are corrupting our children and destroying their innocence”, you would be forgiven for thinking that the toys had come to life — Toy Story-style — and were now fiendishly plotting to hurt vulnerable, passive children. It is as though we have begun to think of the children as lifeless objects, being acted upon by toys, rather than the other way around. As adult women, we have both admitted to each other (almost tentatively for fear of losing some feminist credibility) that as little girls we were bower-bird like in our pursuit for all that was shiny, pretty and pink. We adored our Barbies, were besotted by anything princess-like and suspect that were they around back then — we would have sold our little glittered-up souls for a Bratz. And yet like most women who ever played with Barbie, we somehow managed to turn out just fine. So, instead of merely asking “what are toys doing to our children?”, let’s look at what children actually do with their toys. The reality is that many children play in delightfully creative and often highly subversive ways. If you watch how girls actually play with Barbie they may well quite literally deconstruct her by pulling her arms off, chopping at her hair, or as we did, ignore the pretty pink Barbie kitchen and instead drive her around in a makeshift car pretending she was building an empire. Nor do little girls play at princesses by waiting poised for their prince to come and rescue them. Rather, girls use princess and fairy-themed props to play at power. They order around servants. Right wrongs within their kingdom. Grant wishes. Close to home, Snow White devotee, four-year-old Teyah, was given the nickname “Gum-boot Princess” by her preschool mates; for under her princess gown she always wore sensible boots, all the better for stomping about to create order. We would do well to understand that children don’t necessarily take on the prescriptions their gender-specific toys may indicate. A girl playing in her Barbie kitchen could just as well be running her own restaurant as cooking for a husband and children. This is not to say, however, that the toy aisles couldn’t do with an overhaul....

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