In November 2016, a 15-year old girl in Hebbronville, Texas committed suicide after what her family believed was months of online bullying on the After School social media app. An investigation later found that the negative and bullying messages had come not from other students, but from the girl herself -- a phenomenon known as "self-cyberbullying" or "self-trolling."

The rise of self-cyberbullying

Experts first identified the practice of teens using the anonymity of the internet to post negative statements about themselves back in 2010, and it gained international recognition after the 2013 suicide of a British teen named Hannah Smith was linked to a similar bout of online self-abuse, but there was little data on how prevalent the practice might be.

Now, a team of researchers says their study shows one in twenty adolescents admits to self-trolling at some point in their lives.

One in twenty

The study, conducted by Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University and Justin W. Patchin of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was published in a recent issue of The Journal of Adolescent Health. In this survey of 5,593 students aged 12 to 17, about six percent said they had posted something mean about themselves anonymously on the internet.

About half the respondents said they had done it just once, with a third saying they had done it several times, and 13 percent saying they had done it many times.

Digital self harm

Asked why they posted mean stuff about themselves online, some said they were just trying to be funny.

The majority, though, indicated motivations ranging from self-hatred to depression, attention-seeking, or suicidal thoughts.

Teens who had experienced cyberbullying by others were twelve times more likely to self-cyberbully, and those who identified as not heterosexual were three times more likely to engage in the practice.

More boys than girls said they had self-cyberbullied.

Girls commonly ascribed their motives to depression and psychological pain, while boys tended to say they were Attention Seeking or just joking.

A warning sign?

Self-cyberbullying isn't as common as more traditional forms of physical self-harm, such as cutting or other forms of self-injury. Studies have shown that between 13 and 23 percent of adolescents have practiced self-harm.

The researchers believe much more study is needed to find the connection between self-cyberbullying and suicide.

"Prior research has shown that self-harm and depression are linked to increased risk for suicide and so, like physical self-harm and depression, we need to closely look at the possibility that digital self-harm behaviors might precede suicide attempts," says Hinduja

"We need to refrain from demonizing those who bully," he adds "and come to terms with the troubling fact that in certain cases, the aggressor and the target may be one and the same."

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