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?

Taryn Hillin

Instagram is more than just pretty pictures

Instagram has become aware of some of the most obvious hashtags teens use to gain entrance to this secret social world. When Instagram blocked access to the hashtag "#selfharm", a group of participants simply altered the hashtag to #selfharmm. And then #selfharmmm. Some of the hashtags are so innocuous that there’s no way for Instagram to block them (even #cat, for example, brings up some self-harm photos).

And there are some who argue that blocking isn’t the answer for teens, even if it were possible.

Check on your kids, don’t filter them

There are lots of products and apps which aim to block harmful content. And for younger kids, that's a good option. But since we're talking about pre-teens and teens, there are some compelling reasons not to block content outright—because that prevents lessons from being learned. The goal is to raise kids who will ultimately be able to advocate for and protect themselves. You can do a better job of this by focusing on educating kids about how to navigate social media sensibly, rather than just turning it off.

Also, know that when you check up on your kids, you need to be prepared to find some things you'd rather not have uncovered. This is part of the process, as painful as it may be.

Parents can really view coming across this content as a positive opportunity to have a really tough conversation with their kids.

Megan Moreno, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital

If you’re worried that your child is considering hurting themselves, you should reach out to a mental health professional. Don’t worry that things "aren’t bad enough." Trust your instincts and remember there's no downside to talking with someone. Here are a couple of places to start, if you need more information: