Digital self-harm: The importance of fostering a positive online space

Illustration of a person sitting in at their desk, using their computer in a dark room.
Emily Bi/File
Person staring at computer in dark room

It’s not an uncommon sentiment that the internet and social media are, or at least feel, toxic. Many find that they feel exhausted, drained, anxious and insecure after spending time online. The popularization of the term “doomscrolling” earlier this year, which refers to when one scrolls endlessly through social media to a constant barrage of bad news and upsetting opinions, only cements into the cultural zeitgeist the idea that being online is, for most people, a negative experience.

So why don’t we just log off? Many of us, for a multitude of reasons, feel compelled to stay online and keep looking at upsetting content even though we know this goes against our best interest. Sometimes the argument you tell yourself is that you need to stay informed. Sometimes it’s a psychological test of grit. If you block someone, that will reveal to them that you care too much. If you can’t stand looking at a certain image, that means you’re weak. If you can’t handle being constantly exposed to all the injustices of the world, that means you’re privileged or selfish.

Many people spend countless hours on the internet looking at content that upsets them politically, emotionally and personally. Some people even intentionally seek out upsetting content, and they end up walking away after spending hours online filled with anxiety and despair without knowing why or thinking it’s something they have no control over. Many think that seeing distressing content is just part of the online experience.

But what many don’t know is that there’s a term for these behaviors. Digital self-harm usually refers to the phenomenon in which people, usually teens, cyberbully themselves online as a form of self-harm. It doesn’t always have to be this specific, though, according to a 2017 paper from the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. More broadly, digital self-harm can be any act of seeking out content or engaging in behavior online that promotes negative feelings and actions. Some classic forms of this are online eating disorder or self-harm communities.

But I would argue that you don’t have to be actively engaging in extreme communities to be engaging in digital self-harm. We all get to choose who we follow, the websites we visit and the content we engage with. Any time you go on social media and see content that upsets you on your own feed, you are essentially doing a similar, albeit lower-caliber version of the same thing: You are going out of your way to cultivate an online experience that promotes negative emotions within you.

Although you don’t have control over everything you see online to a certain extent, you probably have control over more than you think you do. Obviously, if you’re looking at content that is toxic, bigoted and specifically aimed to be hurtful, you are not required to engage with it. But the same could be said for smaller, more everyday triggers as well. If you’re following someone who makes you feel bad because they seem to be living the high life while you’re depressed in your room, you can unfollow them. If you’re seeing pictures of people that make you feel bad about your body, you can unfollow them. If you’re bogged down with political posts that constantly remind you of how terrible the world is even when you’re doing all you can to help, you can request not to be shown similar content.

While it is neither healthy nor a requirement to go too far in the other direction and constantly bombard yourself with positivity, it is important to cultivate an online environment for yourself that does not cause you active harm. Follow and engage with content that pertains to your hobbies and interests, brings you joy or relieves you from the stress of real life. If you want to stay informed, engage with accounts and creators who talk about issues in a way that is not shaded with guilt, shame, bigotry or pressure. You do not have to feel pressured into staying engaged with anyone or any community, even people you know from real life or communities you have been active in for a long time.

You have the right to stop looking at anything that distresses or triggers you and replace it with something less destructive.
The internet doesn’t have to be a place you go to load up on anxiety and dread about how terrible everything about you, your life and the world is. While it’s important to stay informed and up to date with important news and information about the world and your social circle, it’s even more important to take care of yourself and make sure you’re able to emotionally function throughout the day. If you find that your online experience is overwhelming, upsetting or depressing, you’re allowed to log off, unfollow, block or look at something else.

Contact Landon Iannamico at [email protected].