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Social Media Spreading Self-Harm Behavior Amongst Teens

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Note: The content in this post may be disturbing to readers.

Ten years ago, if you were to tell someone you were going to "tweet" them, they'd probably have looked at you like you were nuts. Or, how about debating if you should "friend" your parents on Facebook? Social media has been a great asset to our families and friends, but as with anything there is some bad with the good. Teens are using Instagram and Tumblr, amongst other social media platforms, to build entire communities based around dangerous behaviors like cutting and self-harm. We need to have a better policing system that can monitor these platforms and stop users, groups and pages from influencing actions of those in a fragile state of mind.

By now I am sure we all know about the thinspiration sites that plague the Internet. Over the past 15 years, advocacy groups have done a great job in spreading the word about the images of skeletal girls that are used as models for individuals who may have body image problems. They've done such a good job that the word "thinspiration" has become part of the vocabulary and evokes a negative reaction. However, we're still missing something. There are disturbing photos that have spread like wild fire and haunt users on social media.

Images of razor blades, freshly-cut writs and self-inflicted wounds dripping with blood are spread across hundreds of Instagram and Tumblr accounts. They use creative hashtags and lingo to disguise the images, but they aren't hard to find. Anyone searching words like "cut" or "cutting," or even more blunt words like "suicidal" can locate any one of the dozens of photos, sometimes with a line or two of graphic language scrolled across them, on their feeds.

So, why don't these social media platforms take the images off?

Well for one, a lot of them are hidden behind coded hashtags that the site may not flag, but anyone with a keyboard can easily crack the code. Instagram has prohibited self-harm imagery on their service as outlined by their community guidelines, but it doesn't appear they are actively looking for the images. A lot of their rules are based on a system where users report others. This system is deeply flawed, because the individuals who frequent these accounts aren't going to be reporting each other. Tumblr has also taken steps to crack down on self-harm pages by posting a lengthy memo online but again, most of that policing is up to users.

It is a very scary notion that the laptop in your child's room could be a gateway to entire communities of other children who are crying out for help but don't know where to go. That is terrifying for a lot of parents who may have just learned about this culture today.

What can we do to stop this?

A 2011 study from the Center for Adolescent Health at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute concluded that around 1 in 12 kids self-harm. That is an alarming statistic and may be a bit unbelievable for some parents to understand. I see many teens come into our facility at Newport Academy who have had cutting or other self-harm issues that many of their loved ones had no idea about. One of the biggest and most heartbreaking problems is these children are very skilled at hiding their pain. Other than pushing social media sites to take larger steps in removing self-harm content off their platforms, parents need to be involved in their children's lives as a way to combat depression or other mental health problems. The inflicted wounds stems from depression, anxiety, stress or pressure. The cries are visible and parents need to be aware and take notice.

At Newport Academy, we firmly believe that a drug addiction or behavioral problem is not the individual's sole issue; it is the entire family's issue. With that belief, we counsel entire families in our treatment centers along with the family member who was admitted to Newport Academy. I encourage families to have an open line of communication with their kids. They should pay attention if their child has become suddenly withdrawn or has even the subtlest change in behavior.

Until these social media platforms have better policies, parents should monitor where your kid is going on the Internet. Have their passwords, check their Internet history and maybe think twice about leaving a computer or tablet in their room. Kids are smart and can access things too easily without anyone knowing so taking precaution isn't over stepping boundaries. It shouldn't be about infiltrating their personal lives it is about staying involved. Let's raise a flag for social media to have better rules in taking down these sites through education and awareness. It is the greatest tool we have.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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