However, not every victim of online abuse has been targeted by an anonymous troll spewing hate from their parents' basement. According to reports, many teens are trolling themselves online in a process known as "digital self-harming" or "auto-trolling", often in a bid to get attention and sympathy from friends, BBC Three reported.
Digital self-harmers anonymously post, send, or otherwise share hurtful content about themselves on social media platforms, which might range from relatively benign comments such as "no one likes your content" to the far more serious, such as encouragement to "kill yourself" and assertions that "you don't deserve to be alive".
Very little research has been carried out into the trend as yet, but a study of teens last year found that around 6% of US students ages 12 to 17 had digitally self-harmed. Boys were more likely to engage in it than girls, while LGBT students were nearly three times more likely, and those who had experienced school bullying and cyberbullying, drug use, depressive symptoms and those who had participated in "adolescent deviance".
"Digital self-harm is a new problem that demands additional scholarly attention," the researchers concluded. "A deeper inquiry as to the motivations behind this behaviour, and how it correlates to offline self-harm and suicidal ideation, can help direct mental health professionals toward informed prevention approaches."
Another piece of research, conducted in 2012, delved into digital self-harmers' motivations and speculated that some did it as a “cry for help,” for instance, for their mental health issues, others wanted to appear “cool,” while for others the aim was to “trigger compliments” and gain attention from their peers.
Girls who had digitally self-harmed were most often motivated to "prove they could take it", to encourage others to worry about them or get attention from adults, while boys were more likely to say they did it because they wanted to start a fight with someone and presumably wanted to "falsely blame the person they were angry at".
An anonymous 22-year-old former digital self-harmer, given the pseudonym Julian, told BBC Three he did it as a teen after seeing fellow Tumblr users getting anonymous hate messages. “They were quite popular so their followers would really support them through it and send them nice messages. I didn’t have many followers at the time so I thought sending myself a hate message might be a good way to get attention.”
After a fight with a friend he posted self-hating messages urging him to deactivate his account and claiming nobody liked his posts. “It was kind of a way to gain sympathy from my friend so that they just wouldn’t hate me at the time,” he told BBC Three. Sure enough, the strategy worked and his friend reached out to comfort him.
He said it gave him "satisfaction" when someone would say, "'Oh don’t listen to the hate’... like when someone likes your post on Instagram," adding: "I think it can become a bit of an addiction.”
Justin Patchin, a criminal justice professor and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Centre, who was behind last year's study into self-cyberbullying, said there was a link between digital self-harm, offline self-harm, depression and suicidal ideation, but it's unclear if there is a causal relationship between them and which way the relationship goes.
He told BBC Three: “So for example, does someone get depressed, say mean things about themselves online and then consider suicide? Or do they consider suicide, and then the physical and digital self-harm happen at the same time?”
He now hopes to work with social media sites, apps and internet service providers to pinpoint those who are digitally self-harming and guide them towards relevant support services, and further research is urgently needed.