Creating my own blog has allowed me to interact with the vast online writing community but has also exposed me to the harsh and dark side of social media. What struck and really upset me, is the large number of teenagers who had made social media accounts to promote suicide and self-harm. Just the other week, a parent linked Instagram posts to the contributing to the suicide of his 14-year-old daughter, after it was revealed that she’d been prowling posts which romanticised suicide and self-harm. A lot of these accounts appeared to have been set up as a cry for help, a final resort to find people experiencing the same struggles. A way of communicating thoughts they perhaps didn’t feel free to release amongst parents or friends. Releasing emotions anonymously online – like a lot of these accounts were – delegates a sort of free, nameless and honest expression, which is not bound with in-the-flesh conversations.
Though, sadly the more pages I came across, it became difficult to differentiate between the cries for help, the promotion and the attention-seeking. I found myself immersed in an online community where people gained more attention when labelled by their mental state instead of their names. Immersed in a community where the desperate need for attention, caused the mental state to become ‘a personality trait…enmeshed in [their] identity’ as Dr. Neo states. Recently, Instagram has become a major platform for self-care advocacy and yet, this culture of online self-hating teens is quickly growing. Many of the accounts seem to have been created to follow the ‘trend’, as hashtags like #worldmentalhealthday are constantly trending, with over 500k posts and even more followers and attention.
But what a lot of these posts fail to highlight, is that depression is not attractive; it’s a mental illness which shouldn’t be glorified. Social media should be a platform which allows people to share their story, but triggering images and posts shouldn’t be so accessible. Teenagers shouldn’t feel as though they have to post evidence to validate their struggle. The gruesome images hidden behind Instagram’s seemingly harmless hashtags shouldn’t be overlooked and shouldn’t be normalised. Those who are posting suicidal thoughts and displaying their number of days ‘clean’ from self-harm, binging and starving themselves, need support. They are explicitly demanding help. Social media sites have a responsibility to monitor potentially damaging posts and, in my opinion, to report the posts to the appropriate support networks. It shouldn’t take a death for social media sites to become accountable and begin to fulfil their duty of care.
Searching explicit hashtags, such as #selfharm, provokes a warning message from Instagram, stating that such tags can ‘cause harm and even lead to death’. Why are posts which Instagram clearly state could ‘lead to death’ so easily accessible to the site’s younger users? Why are they accessible at all? At this point, although you’re encouraged to seek help and are directed to Instagram’s support page, you’re also offered the much too easy alternative of simply viewing the ‘posts anyway’, after which there is no filter on the violent and upsetting images which flood the screen. Social media networks need to not only recognise that the content on their platform could be highly triggering and damaging, but need to manage the display of these posts on their site and support those screaming for help.
Online many teenagers interacting with these accounts, term anorexia ‘Ana’, ‘Annie’ is anxiety, borderline personality disorder is known as ‘Bella’, bulimia is ‘Mia’, ‘Sophie’ is schizophrenia and ‘Sue’ is suicide. They post about their experiences with these disorders/acts, using these constructed names to tell their story. But, assigning these playful names romanticises these disorders and builds a space which allows such conditions to be portrayed as lifestyle choices, rather than damaging behaviour. Creating these characters dangerously posits the disorders as a community of friends, portraying the disorders as a culture who will always reside with the teenager, an idea which many memes help to solidify. The characters become inescapable as the teens are confronted with their lasting presence online, each time they log into their social media accounts.
Although those simply following the trend are glorifying harmful behaviour, their outreach shouldn’t be ignored. Ignoring their cries only allows them to buy into this culture, and it’s a dark one. Last year, The Independent reported a 67% increase between 2010-2017 in teenage suicides in England and Wales; such figures have been linked to the promotion of suicide on social media.
These figures were also linked to the rise of tuition fees which occurred during this period. Teenagers have a lot of overwhelming pressure with both the stress and costs of the education system, and often this struggle is overlooked and treated with the phrase ‘someone always has it worse than you’. I agree. Somebody is always in a worse situation than your own, but this shouldn’t extinguish your own battle or make your feelings inferior. Listen to those around you and don’t just check up on your friends when the Facebook photo frames remind you that it’s World Mental Health Day. Let’s create a safe space culture, where we speak and express feelings to each other, rather than speaking to the online community and drifting further into the dark and lonesome vortex.