Self-harm among children, teens and young adults is nothing new. What's new is the vast array of social platforms that allow them to share and access content related to it. As a result, the number of kids self-harming has continued to rise. In 2018, over 1.2 million Instagram posts included hashtags like #selfharm, #hatemyself, #selfharmawareness and #cutting. Now, maybe you're thinking your child doesn't follow anyone that is posting about self-harming. Unfortunately, with the way social media algorithms have been designed to prey on its vulnerable users, they are susceptible to seeing photos and videos related to it on their feed.
Social media can be a safe space for those struggling, but it can also become an outlet where self-harm is normalized. For young kids, they may not even know what self-harming is or why people do it until they come across a TikTok or Instagram post talking about it.
Studies have found that one's motivation to post about their own self-harm can come from a variety of places. They may be seeking support, trying to fit in or want to discuss how they self-harm with others.
One of the great benefits of social media is that it gives people the chance to connect and communicate with those who share common interests, hobbies or perspectives. When struggling with mental illness, external support is crucial. Unfortunately, not every child feels or knows that they have someone trusted and stable that they can turn to in real life. So, during these dark times, kids will often turn to their online community for support.
They may be posting pictures or videos of their self-harm scars as a cry for help. It's likely that they find comfort in sharing their emotional and psychological struggles with others with the hopes that someone out there is experiencing the same thing. Sometimes they just need someone who cares about them to give them a reason to stop.
I know how it sounds. Why would anyone who is struggling and suffering from self-harm or suicidal thoughts want others to experience the same pain? As kids, they just want to feel normal. They want to feel like the dark thoughts in their head are going on in other kids' minds too. They want to share and bond over their misery. It's common that they will turn to social media to discuss different forms of self-harm, how to hide it or how to do it in a way that doesn't lead to infection. In other words, there are accounts out there posting a 'How to self-harm guide' and big tech is allowing it to populate on your child's feed.
Research has found that teens are more likely to share the same type of content that they see others sharing. Ever heard of the word 'trending'? The more teenagers are exposed to social media posts about self-harm, the more interested they become and the more likely they are to follow suit.
As scary as it sounds, children are extremely absorbant of all types of content, both positive and negative. For example, maybe your child has been feeling down lately. A few months ago they didn't even know what self-harm was but lately, they've been seeing TikToks related to it. It's not because they are intentionally following these accounts or posting about it themselves but because the algorithm noticed that they take the time to stop and watch these videos out of curiosity. Because of this exposure, one of their first thoughts is to harm themselves because a video they watched made it seem like that's what you do when they feel sad.
This vicious cycle is what has normalized self-harm online and increased its prevalence in society, especially among younger generations.
There's a fine line between spreading awareness about self-harm and normalizing it. In 2005, less than 3% of college freshmen were self-harming. In 2018? More than 19%. The numbers continue to rise and it is likely attributed to the amount of information available to the public. A recent study found that the 1.2 million Instagram posts that used hashtags like #selfharm, #hatemyself, #selfharmawareness and #cutting were most commonly accompanied by #suicide and #depression.
Mental health in children is often overlooked until it's too late. As a parent, I encourage you to begin having these conversations before your kid becomes curious and turns to the internet for answers.
As a company committed to the mental well-being of children, we designed our Mental Health Check to help parents start these conversations with their children. We worked alongside clinical child psychologists to create questions that dive deep and ask your child about things like friendship, bullying, family relationships, how they handle certain emotions and more. These frequent checks were meant to keep you consistently informed and force your child to really stop and think about how they are feeling throughout the day.
Make sure it is engrained in your child's mind that they can always turn to you whenever they feel their mental health is taking a turn. Talk about the different options available if they begin to feel depressed or anxious and that self-harm is never the answer.
If you or your child are having thoughts of self-harm, visit our Helpful Hotlines page for a variety of mental health and crisis-related resources.