When you become a parent, you learn a lot of things you wish you hadn't. Like how many colors poop comes in. Or the best strategy for getting a bleeding kid to the front of the triage line at the ER ("he’s having trouble breathing!").
Because I work for a company that’s created a social media monitoring app, I’ve had to learn about a lot of things that are happening on social media—things I didn’t want to know. Things that I wish weren’t even "things." But, just like every other part of parenting, it’s the hardest stuff that’s the most important.
One of the more uncomfortable things I've encountered recently is the correlation between self-harm and social media.
What is self-harm?
Some teens struggle not just with the average angst of being a teen, but with more debilitating anxiety or depression. One of the ways these underlying problems can manifest is through self-harm: the intentional harming of one’s body, as a coping mechanism to experience short-term relief of the intense emotions that often accompany depression or anxiety.
The most common form of self-harm is cutting, where a person takes a sharp object like a razor blade and inflicts cuts that are deep enough to draw blood on their arms or legs.
Recently, I came across a great article that explains what's happening and why: "Teens are using a secret language on Instagram to talk about self-harm." For the article, author Taryn Hillin consulted pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist Megan Moreno. Dr. Moreno said that anywhere from 7-24% of teens engage in some form of self-harm. And there's a definite social media connection:
Moreno and her team focused specifically on Instagram, where a hidden-in-plain-sight subculture of depressed and self-harming young people is thriving. “If you’re cutting, it can be stigmatizing,” said Moreno. “But teens in my clinic go on Instagram and use hashtags because it provides them a key to others just like them.” After poring through Instagram posts, Moreno uncovered dozens of hashtags teens use to post about self-harm—sometimes encouraging others to injure themselves, sometimes crying out for help. The reason they required “uncovering” in the first place is because Instagram’s community guidelines explicitly prohibit “glorifying self-injury,” so users are forced to constantly change their tag language. “If you have these secretive hashtags you can unlock this community that understands what you’re going through,” explained Moreno, “and you can get a sense of belonging.”
Sometimes connecting with others who are facing similar challenges acts like a social support group for these vulnerable teens. But for other teens, or at other times, it can have the opposite effect, inspiring teens to continue the damaging practice out of a misguided sense of belonging. Seeing the images can also trigger a relapse in a recovering individual.
When does finding others online with whom you can quite literally share your pain serve as a source of support, and when does it encourage self-destructive behavior?Filed under: social media, Instagram, social-media-trends, teens, digitalparenting, talking-to-your-kids, self-harm