#thinspo, #beatana, #cutting, #edwarrior

If you saw these hashtags on your teen’s Instagram account, would you know what they meant?

Instagram is a wildly popular social media platform for teens; it's also a place where lots of teens go looking for a community of like-minded others who have faced similar struggles. It can be a very affirming place.

But, like virtually everything online, there’s also a downside.

Earlier this year I wrote two posts about Instagram's initiatives to ban the hashtags related to eating disorders and self-harm. To find out more about these disturbing teen behaviors and what you, as a parent, can do about them you can read the full posts here: #beatana—What Instagram Hashtags Can Tell You About Your Teen and #self-harm.

ED=eating disorder, ANA=anorexia

Eating disorder recovery groups are popular on Instagram. Teens gather around hashtags like #edwarrior and #beatana to share stories and offer support. There are also groups that offer help and encouragement to teens who are struggling with self-harming behaviors like cutting.

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.

However, instead of finding support on Instagram, these vulnerable teens can sometimes feel pulled back down the rabbit hole of their troubling behaviors.

In the past, Instagram struggled to ban the hashtags teens were using to encourage things like anorexia and cutting. As soon as the social media company would ban a particular hashtag, teens would change to an alternate one (So #thinspiration, #thinspo have been replaced by #th1nsp and #thh1nsp0.) It was an arms race to make sure that the site was as safe as it could be.

This week, Instagram launched another salvo in the battle to provide help to their most vulnerable community members: the ability for ordinary users to step in and offer resources to troubled Instagrammers.

Help from the community

Instagram's most recent update includes new prompts that users can take advantage of if a friend posts something that feels like a cry for help.

If a user creates a post that reveals he or she is struggling with an eating disorder, self-harm, or if they appear to be considering suicide, anyone who sees the post can click on the ellipsis (...) at the bottom of the post. This offers followers the chance to report the post as "Inappropriate" and then select, "This photo puts people at risk." (There are also options for what the risk is—self-harm (including eating disorders), harassment or bullying, or drug use.

This support page will also appear if a hashtag related to self-harm (like #thinspo or #ana) is searched.

What does Instagram do when you report a post that you think puts someone at risk? The app pops up a message on the poster's feed that reads: "Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we'd like to help."

Three support resources are offered, right in the app:

  • Talk to a friend

  • Contact a helpline

  • Get tips and support

Instagram worked with different organizations like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Eating Disorders Association to make sure their offers of help would be appropriate and (hopefully) effective.

We listen to mental health experts when they tell us that outreach from a loved one can make a real difference for those who may be in distress. At the same time, we understand friends and family often want to offer support but don't know how best to reach out. These tools are designed to let you know that you are surrounded by a community that cares about you, at a moment when you might most need that reminder.

Instagram chief operating officer, Marne Levine

Awareness is half the battle

By definition, teens are vulnerable and struggling with their identity. As parents, part of our job is to know what’s going on behind our children’s eyes. That’s not easy when part of normal adolescent development demands privacy and independence.

If your child is wrestling with disordered eating or self-harm there are ways you can help. You can start by recognizing their struggle. Here’s a great resource outlining the sometimes subtle symptoms of eating disorders. And here's a terrific article about what parents can do to recognize and cope with teens who self-harm.

Worried that your teen may already be engaging in these damaging behavior patterns? Trust your gut and don't wait—there is no downside to reaching out for help before things get out of control. Here's a good place to start: Crisis Text Line.

Check out the links below if you want to know more.