Monday, 7 November 2016

Digital Self Harm

This evening I have been studying Chapter 6 of danah boyd’s book on social media use ‘It’s Complicated, the social lives of networked teens’, and came across the following term: “digital self-harm”.

The chapter deals with cyberbullying and the forms it takes online, especially among young American teenagers. It really demonstrates how activity adults may describe as bullying don’t necessarily match with what teenagers perceive to be bullying activity.

In terms of digital self-harm, boyd references Formspring a question and answer website, which allows users to anonymously ask other users questions, if the question is answered the question and answer is then published online.

Despite offensive questions boyd explains that some young people would still respond, even though if they hadn’t responded the question would have never been published online.

danah boyd ‘It’s Complicated, the social lives of networked teens’ (2014) comments “some teens were engaging in acts of digital self-harm to attract attention, support and validation”. Though in a different context, I could actually relate to this!

Via my social media channels, especially Twitter, during the course of the US Election campaign I have been massively vocal in my disdain for Presidential candidate Donald Trump, replying to other users tweets within what I would call “unsafe for Liberals” spaces online.

For example, I would reply with anti-Trump rhetoric to accounts followed primarily by Trump supporters. I am always met with hatred and abusive tweets, but I have been doing this for months, despite the abuse I get I still do it, knowing the response I will get.

In a way this is digital self-harm, I am standing there (metaphorically) as an online punching bag ready to receive the abuse. Why? Well as boyd says, firstly for validation, as I would get a lot of praise from like-minded individuals for the points I would make and it would increase traffic to my social networks.

But secondly, for entertainment, as the views of the Pro-Trump crowd are so laughable. So in a way I am welcoming attacks and abuse – digital self-harm.

This is similar to what boyd describes in the book, in that teenagers crave the validation and attention they would get if their friends or others would see them receiving abuse online.

But as mentioned earlier and as boyd touches on this activity would not be felt to be bullying by teenagers but their parents may have a very different view on their online activity.

This comes down to the definition of bullying. In her book boyd cites Swedish author Dan Olweus who in the 1970’s defined bullying as consisting of three elements being aggression, repetition and imbalance in power. He argues that these three elements must be present for something to be considered bullying.

In this case the Formspring example or my example of the Trump tweets wouldn’t be seen as bullying, particularly because of the power element.

By posting anti-Trump rhetoric in response to pro-Trump accounts I know what I expect and I give as good as I get! So there is no imbalance in power, just like the example from boyd’s book, the teenager decided to reply and therefore publish the Formspring content, it was the teenager’s choice, there was no imbalance of power.

To conclude, from boyd’s chapter on bullying the definition of it and what constitutes bullying online is far from a black and white landscape.


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