The sharp edge of the cursor: My digital self harm

By Carson Lewis | Assistant Digital Editor

Mental health is a more important topic now than it has ever been, and with the possible return to a fully online campus looming this semester, I’ve found many reasons to look introspectively at how I treat my own mental health.

One thing that I’ve noticed is how often I practice unhealthy ways of coping with stress or self-care. As a guy, it can be hard to express emotions and disappointments. I tend to bottle things up inside and I don’t realize that I’ve had problems and negative images about myself that need to be addressed and brought to light.

To be transparent, I’ve never been diagnosed with any serious mental disorder. I’ve had periods of “depression” but I don’t like using that word frequently in fear that it downplays the experiences of people who suffer through diagnosed major depressive disorder. However, mental health is an issue that affects us all, and I believe we all practice unhealthy coping online.

Digital self harm is a term used by some researchers and professors who sought to learn more about why some teenagers would send hateful messages about themselves to their social media accounts, often through places like Tumblr or I haven’t had much involvement with that use of the word, but I believe that new ways of self-harming digitally are evolving and being created daily, especially with the rise of hateful or depressive content in some online spheres.

When I was in high school, I frequented Reddit as a way to engage in online community. However, back in the late 2010s the site was a breeding ground for content that wouldn’t fly in other areas of the web. The growing far right had prolific groups on the site that promoted threats of violence, anti-Semitic memes and seemed to be a hotbed for infighting and hate — for others and oneself. Other groups included r/cripplingalcoholism, a pseudo-Alcoholics Anonymous that played host to users that wallowed in self-pity and debilitating hopelessness.

I thought when I first encountered these sites that these communities were not helpful to their users, and considered how the online spaces they lived in might affect their mental state significantly. The problem that I had was that I “othered” them. I never thought I would engage in self-hating content.

At that time, like many high school guys, I used phrases like “I’m going to kill myself” or “I hate my life.” It was a common thing to do for many of my friends. Using suicidal language in reference to failing a test was not uncommon. I found online communities that used the same language, but went to a different extreme. Some communities on Reddit appealed to this, but functioned as a way for users to self-mutilate their minds and egos. Some users jokingly swore that they would never find love, or would kill themselves before they finished college because they saw no future for themselves. Often the comments would be less than helpful to these dark wishes. For me, it became cathartic to view such content. I was already feeling bad about myself, and so it was almost reassuring to see it reinforced by so many people online.

This evolved into fascination with “incel” groups, an internet subculture of primarily young, internet-savvy young men who believe they are involuntarily celibate, and can’t and won’t experience romance or sexual relations with women. I had incredible friends and partners in high school, who uplifted me and supported me, so I didn’t relate as much to the community, but I found them interesting so I frequently viewed their communities. I noticed that I began using some of their language in my daily vocabulary. Some in the community would ridicule others for being shorter than 6 feet tall and claimed that was the reason why women wouldn’t date them. I began to become self-conscious about my height, and whenever I doubted my self-worth I returned to those communities or ideas to hurt myself.

I eventually realized the harm I was doing to myself through the viewing of these spaces, and decided to leave them for good. This was simple for me to do, but can be especially hard for those who do not have good safety nets of friends and caring family to help them through tough times. It is important to care for others and treat others with honor and love, but we must also remember to treat ourselves in that same way. In a time period of self-hate, we must love ourselves as we love those around us.

I believe this occurrence is more common than many people think, and I think if it’s not addressed, then it could become a monolithic problem in our generation. It’s important to consider what kinds of content we’re viewing and what effect that has on our mental state. Ideas and concepts are powerful, and it’s essential in the era of COVID-19 — where our lives may become majority-digital, to take care of our minds when things become rough.

The Baylor counseling center’s phone number is 254-710-2467.