Self-harm and social media

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.

3 thoughts on “Self-harm and social media

  1. Very interesting post and coming, initially, from a different perspective to my own. However, I do now agree that people who self-harm for whatever reason absolutely need places to share that on the Internet with strangers or whoever searches for the topic. As long as they’re adults. But the Molly Russell case still bothers me, so I have a question.

    Do you agree that images of self-harm, particularly if they also encourage people to share images of their self-harm (or encourage self-harm in the first place) should be age protected? It worries me that very young teenagers (like Molly was) could be viewing many different accounts filled with testimonies and images of self harm and feel the need to ‘join in’ in order to ‘prove’ the extent of the mental distress they are in. Or even to just feel like they belong in the group. I was horrendously depressed and unhappy as a teen but I’d never even heard of self-harm, let alone had the opportunity to see images of it. I do wonder now that if I had, I might well have felt compelled to copy just in order to prove the extent of my distress and to get people (my parents, doctors who refused to believe I was depressed) to notice me, help me and take me seriously. While I understand that self-harm is a coping mechanism for many, and obviously always better than a suicide attempt, things can so easily go wrong – infections, cutting a nerve or artery or worse. Therefore it must be the most dangerous coping mechanism out there, no? I also feel that the ‘proof’ or ‘competitive’ element is a terribly dangerous one, especially in teenagers.

    During my stay in a psychiatric hospital five years ago, I remember one of my fellow patients pointing out a young woman who always wore her sleeves rolled up to reveal scabs all the way up and down her inner arms.
    “Those are just cat scratches,” my friend told me. “She does it for attention, that’s why she always has her sleeves rolled up.”
    He then pointed to an older, male patient who was known for having just made a very serious attempt on his life. “Now he’s the real deal,” my friend went on. “You can see that his scars go much deeper. And they don’t run across his arms but down them, along the veins. That’s the way you do it if you really want to kill yourself.”
    Automatically there was this sense of respect for the guy who had the deep, downward scars, the guy who was the ‘real deal’ and whose suffering therefore must be unrelenting and intense, in contrast to the ridicule of the girl with the ‘cat scratches’, who apparently wasn’t serious about dying and whose suffering was therefore not to be taken seriously.
    Of course, we can’t police for this kind of thinking in adults, but shouldn’t we be extremely mindful about it in teens, who are much more likely to engage in these simplistic assumptions and unspoken competitive behaviours? That’s what would worry me the most if I had a teenager who was regularly engaging with these kinds of groups.

    When my brother was in his teens, he made a very serious attempt on his life which landed him up in hospital. He was part of a group of like-minded ‘teen rebels’ at school. While he was recovering in hospital with me at his side, he was visited by his best friend from the group. As she approached his bedside she was wide-eyed with disbelief and the look on her face was one I could only describe as awe.
    “Wow!” she gasped at him. “Shit! I can’t believe you actually went ahead and did it!”
    Instead of anger, instead of sadness at her friend for being so unhappy he no longer wanted to live, there was this whole new other emotion I could tell would be reflected by the rest of my brother’s group. It was an unmistakable feeling of respect. My brother was a hero for what he had tried to do.

    Teenagers are so very different from (most) adults and yet look so similar that it’s so easy to forget what it was like once you’re a grown-up yourself. My biggest concern about images of self-harm on sites predominantly used by teenagers is that it can so easily be turned into a sort of unspoken competition. Whether the young people are just going through normal teen angst or are being bullied at school or are having a hard time at home or are indeed suffering from very serious mental illnesses – they’re still teenagers. And the urge to stand out or belong or be the best or the most troubled or even to just be taken seriously is so, so strong. Of course sufferers of mental illness should have places on the Internet where they can speak out about their self-harm and even post images of it. But shouldn’t this be restricted to adult-only platforms or at least be password protected for the over 18s? Teenagers definitely need safe outlets for sharing their feelings and their troubles and their mental illnesses. And they definitely need places to share and discuss self harm. But shouldn’t those places be safe, with moderators and no actual images of self-inflicted injury allowed? Is there so much to be gained by allowing them to view and share graphic images of their self-induced cuts, scars and blood that it’s also worth running the very real risk of it inducing peer encouragement and unspoken competitions of ‘cutting deeper for respect’?

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    • Hi 🙂 I agree with you. I think that SH posts/images can also be used/read to inform SH, can shape ideas about the ‘right’ kind of SH, fuel competition etc. Amy Chandler writes about it really nicely here in another post in this SH series – https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/seeing-self-harm-as-an-embodied-social-practice/

      And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Nothing online is ‘just’ good. Social media can be a huge source of support and a lifeline for some; and for others a source of bullying and misery (and for most people a bit of both). And as we’ve seen, the response from policy people is often to demonise social media, or to try, pretty unsuccessfully, to gatekeep sites to make them inaccessible to younger people. And I understand that from a policy perspective.

      But from a parent’s perspective :), my experience has been that it’s pretty impossible to police your child’s phone use and what they access online. You can maybe do it for the first few years through WiFi passwords and settings- but they work it all out pretty quickly. Essentially when your child gets a phone, which these days seems to be at least when they start secondary school, they can access the whole of the internet. Most kids manage to circumvent the age policies on sites. And the really dodgy sites don’t have any age policy. So the focus as a parent (should) quickly become – not policing your child’s internet use, but trying to educate them on why some sites and posts might be unethical, dangerous, unreliable, problematic etc. Which is really challenging from a parent’s perspective. And I think it’s the same for SH stuff online. Being able to have conversations with your child about SH and also about SH stuff online (and acknowledging it’s not all straightforward) feels like the most powerful protective measure you can put in place.

      So with regards to SH posts online, I think it would be great in principle to have some kinds of safeguards in place so very young people can’t access them. But I can’t think right now of an example where this has worked online.
      I think what I would really want to see are more really supportive (moderated) forums so YP did have a safe place to go to share this stuff. And if we had more spaces like that, for example, and more generally more informed and compassionate conversations around SH, then that would inform other online conversations about SH. I think I’m saying I don’t think it’s possible to police these conversations online through gatekeeping etc (because they will just move elsewhere), but that it’s possible to influence them and that’s what policy makers/practitioners/patents should be focusing on… does that make sense?

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  2. Makes a lot of sense!
    But because of the risk of influencing or giving ideas to any person, young or old, might there be a case for allowing testimonies of SH but not actual images of self-inflicted wounds? Aren’t these also triggering for many ppl recovering from SH? Or would that reduce the amount of ppl who would want to share their stories? In no way do I think ppl who self harm should be silenced or in any way discouraged from sharing stories and speaking out. I just wonder how ‘contagious’ SH might be as a coping mechanism OR as a method of drawing attention to oneself (that’s not the reason the vast majority of ppl do it, I do realise), the latter especially in teens – and maybe if there was a general ban only on SH images that can be viewed by the public, then people, including teens, would still be at complete liberty to share their stories, without running the risk of over-influencing or triggering non self-harmers and those recovering from it. Although I appreciate that enforcing all of this would be a completely different matter!

    But I suppose I’m curious about how the actual sharing and displaying of images of one’s own self-harm (as opposed to stories and testimonies with descriptions), as well as viewing the images of others, helps self-harmers support each other or speak out in the first place. Does showing your wounds to strangers or ppl you don’t know in real life perhaps make it slightly easier to then show them to loved ones or friends or medics who could help and support? If so, then I agree that it would make a very strong case for continuing to allow images of SH to be posted freely.

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