And here we are: yet again, the need to ‘do something’, anything, about social media and self-harm. The latest furore, borne of the tragic suicide of Molly Russell, is part of a longer tirade against social media and against self-harm, by people who don’t understand either and would take them away from people who do.From a business perspective, one would imagine that organisations like Twitter will walk the tightrope of performative action in order to satisfy their critics, whilst being mindful that attempts to police these spaces, based on a misunderstanding of what they are for and how they are used, will only serve to alienate their core audience or customers.
From a mental health perspective, too many conversations about the interaction between social media and self-harm are deeply frustrating. They conflate self-harm and suicide, repeat simplistic tropes about contagion, and generally take a moralistic view of self-harm as a maladaptive and pathological act primarily restricted to young (white) women. Depending on the body being self-harmed and how it is aged, classed, gendered and racialized, amongst others, reactions might veer between paternalistic pity and disgusted disapproval. But this is perhaps unsurprising when one considers that mental health practice around self-harm often follows these same logics, as is evidenced by the many accounts of people being stitched without anaesthetic in A&E. That the considerable body of testimonies, activism and scholarship exploring the nuances and complexities of self-harm has not permeated mainstream mental health is a matter of urgent concern. It is more predictable that in policy or public discourses, it seems to be completely disregarded.
When it comes to self-harm and how it is materialised on social media, the conversation perhaps touches on what we might see as the secret life revealed. If everyone has three lives, as Gabriel García Marquez wrote, one public, one private, and one secret, self-harm slides across all three, slipping into the spaces in between. Most self-harm we will never know about. It is buried deep inside us, unspoken: the injuries we will never show, a hidden compact between ourselves and our bodies. The bandage that we glimpse on someone’s wrist, the scar we may catch on someone’s arm in the bus: that’s just the self-harm that someone is too tired to hide, or that has its place in their lives and on their bodies, the self-harm for which they may have the words. But I will never tell you the ways in which I have really harmed myself, and you will never tell me yours.
Self-harm on social media is perhaps something else again. It is both public and private and neither, in the same way that so much of what we say online is. The boundaries shift and shape. We have the latitude to reveal more, because it’s easier to spill your secrets to a stranger than a friend. Incidentally, the people who decry self-harm posts are often those who advocate for Twitter to ban anonymous accounts. They don’t understand that it is anonymity which enables both confession and whistleblowing. Being anonymous means you can troll with impunity; but it also means you can say things which we don’t normally say. It’s the anonymous accounts on Twitter which often give the most clear, unrelenting picture of what it is like to use mental health services today.
But whilst our lives are public in a different way to before, this doesn’t mean there are no more secrets. The fallacy is assuming that a self-harm post is just that, bypassing not only the complexity of self-harm, its many meanings and functions, but also the many meanings and functions of the post, where it is positioned and how it flits between private to public and back again. So much of social media is about identity and community. Look, I am here: can I connect with you, can you find me?
If we ban pictures of self-harm on social media, what we risk is silencing and isolating those in most pain and those in most need of connection. The persons most likely to be punished are those who are dependent on social media to connect with others- because of disability, precarity, isolation, or their life circumstances. The very people, one would have thought, policy makers would be minded to protect.
However, if Clegg and his colleagues are successful in their endeavour to police self-harm posts on Instagram, they will most likely only push them onto different platforms, further away from their sight and ironically harder to police. The so-called scourge of self-harm will not be defeated, the supposed battles against mental ill-health will still be waged – and people will still struggle. The posts won’t go away because they have a reason to exist. They might serve as beacons for connection. They might be seeking or offering support, or simply be lonely voices trying to speak their pain in order to find some kind of response, validation or recognition.
In the same way, we are not about to get rid of self-harm, because it has a function. It might be used to bargain with suicidal thoughts, or it might be a powerful call to choose life. It might be about punishment or control, love, anger or shame. It might be about wanting to die, or needing to feel alive – or anything in between. Often, it is an understandable response to distress. What would happen if we validated self-harm as a creative survival strategy, if we fully supported people who self-harmed, if we saw the person not their injury, and if we offered connection and solidarity? It might, I think, look a lot like the social media threads and groups Nick Clegg would like to ban.
First published on the Sociological Review blog.