Social Media and Self-Harm
Content on social media normalizes self-harm while encouraging teens to initiate this behavior and wound themselves with increasing severity over time. Self-harm is a symptom of serious underlying distress that increases the long-term risk of suicide. Self-harming youth seek support on social media because their behavior is often stigmatized in real life.
What You’ll Learn
According to the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of adolescents engage in self-harm, compared to just 6 percent of adults. It typically begins at the age of 13 or 14. Non-suicidal self-injury is more common among LGBTQ youth than heterosexual gender-conforming youth.
The incidence of self-harming behavior is highest in the psychiatric population, especially among those with emotional distress. Young people who self-harm most often have one or more of the following characteristics:
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Tendency to be self-critical
Social media has become deeply entwined in adolescent culture. According to Pew Research, 97 percent of American teens use the internet daily, with nearly half reporting being online “constantly.” Approximately 35 percent reported using social media sites “almost constantly.”
According to the survey, the majority of adolescents use social media, with the highest prevalence on the following platforms:
Thus, it is natural for teens who self-harm to turn to social media for support, escape, or even education about their behavior. However, social media is an inappropriate resource for this purpose, as it only serves to worsen the problem.
What is self-harm?
The American Psychological Association refers to self-harm as non-suicidal self-injury and defines it as the intentional infliction of physical harm upon oneself without suicidal intent. Self-harm most commonly includes:
- Cutting the skin
- Burning the skin
- Punching objects
- Punching oneself
- Embedding objects under the skin
- Any act intended to cause pain without ending life
Self-injury may be inflicted on any part of the body, but it is most commonly inflicted upon the wrists, hands, stomach, and thighs.
Non-suicidal self-injury disorder is not an official illness, but it is listed in the DSM-5 as a condition that requires further study.
Symptoms of Self-Harm
Teens who engage in self-harm may inflict injuries on areas of the body that are not readily visible, or they may attempt to hide their injuries. They may exhibit the following signs:
- Scars that often occur in patterns
- Unexplained fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, or other injuries
- Excessive rubbing of one area of the skin to create a friction burn
- Long-sleeve clothing during hot weather
Teens who self-injure may have the following emotional characteristics:
- Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
- Intense emotions or mood swings
- Expressions of helplessness, hopelessness, or low self-worth
Why do young people engage in self-harm?
Self-mutilation has a myriad of triggers, but the primary reasons teens choose this coping mechanism are:
- To alleviate overwhelming negative emotions
- To self-punish
- To create a physical sign of emotional distress
- To combat numbness by generating feelings
The idea that physical pain can relieve emotional pain has a scientific basis. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that the infliction and subsequent relief of physical pain made test subjects feel better emotionally, even those who were not self-destructive.
A study published by BMC Psychiatry found that neuroticism, introversion, and self-criticism are predictors of high pain thresholds and pain endurance. These findings support the idea that people who self-mutilate see themselves as damaged or worthy of punishment.
Do teens engage in self-harm for attention?
The belief that self-harm is an attention-seeking behavior is a common misconception with no basis in research. While teens may occasionally call attention to their self-inflicted injuries, attention is rarely the primary motivation.
Even in rare cases when attention is a motivating factor, a teen who engages in self-destructive behavior is generally facing distress and is just as deserving of intervention as those who self-injure for any other reason.
Self-Harm and Suicidal Ideation
Although self-harm may seem to be a form of suicidal ideation, most self-injuries are not suicide attempts. Young people who self-injure generally attempt to feel better rather than end their lives. In fact, some may self-injure to avoid suicide.
However, self-mutilation can become habitual, lowering inhibitions to inflict harm upon oneself. This increases the long-term risk of suicide. In addition, according to Child Mind Institute, self-harm and suicidal tendencies share common risk factors, including:
- High emotional sensitivity
- History of trauma or chronic stress
- Emotional extremes
- Emotional suppression with a lack of emotional coping mechanisms
- Feelings of isolation
- Substance abuse history
The risk of transitioning from non-suicidal self-injury to suicidal thinking and behaviors increases when a teen also experiences:
- Family problems
- More than 20 self-harm incidents
- Recent psychological distress
- Suicide avoidance or practice as the motivation behind self-harm
- High impulsivity
- Engagement in risky behavior
- Diagnosis of PTSD or depression
- Social media addiction
Social Media and Self Harm
Social media normalizes self-harm, facilitates sharing techniques, and encourages concealment. Young people may turn to the internet to understand or for support, only to be drawn into self-harm communities that encourage the behavior, apply pressure to inflict deeper wounds, and teach additional self-injury methods.
Social media is rife with self-harm imagery that can create physical and emotional responses in young viewers. In some cases, users looking for emotional distress support come across self-harm content unintentionally, leading to the commencement of self-harm.
The imagery often becomes an important part of self-harm routines, as teens use it to motivate themselves to inflict more severe harm. They may even chide themselves when they can’t achieve a more severe or sophisticated technique.
Teens who share their self-harm images on social media tend to inflict more serious wounds on themselves. While they often experience positive, empathetic responses, they also face criticism for not cutting more deeply.
Cyberbullying and Self-Harm
Cyberbullying is strongly associated with self-injurious thoughts and behaviors, including non-suicidal self-injury, suicidal ideation, suicide plans, and suicide attempts. Cyberbullying is, in many ways, more damaging than traditional bullying and can impact teens throughout the day, whether they are at school or home.
Cyberbullied teens experience greater incidences of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, all of which are risk factors for self-harm and suicidal ideation. LGBTQ youth experience elevated rates of cyberbullying, with approximately 56 percent reporting cyberbullying compared to 15 percent of youth in general.
Sexual Abuse and Self-Harm
Childhood maltreatment is associated with non-suicidal self-injury, according to Frontiers in Psychiatry. The correlation is strongest in cases involving the sexual abuse of females, but the correlation also exists in sexually abused males.
Sexting is linked to anxiety, depression, delinquency, substance abuse, and self-harm. While sexting is not always harmful, it can be an unhealthy behavior. It may also occur in cases of online grooming.
Social media exposes teen boys and girls to sexual violence at an alarming rate due to how easily predators can identify and contact teens online. As a result, teens experience exploitation in the following forms, all of which increase the risk of self-harm:
Social media platforms such as Telegram, Discord, and Reddit encourage anonymity and make it easy for sexual predators to escape detection when targeting and grooming teens online.
Body Image and Self-Harm
As many as 34.6 percent of women with eating disorders have engaged in self-harming behavior in their lifetimes. This is not surprising considering teens and young adults with body image problems and eating disorders also tend to share risk factors with self-injurious teens, including:
- Low self-esteem
- Tendencies to be self-critical
Social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat encourage teens to compare their bodies to idealized versions of others, resulting in increased dissatisfaction with their own bodies.
Social Media Addiction and Self-Harm
Youth who engage in self-harm may use social media to compensate for a lack of positive social interaction in real life. The continuous string of notifications and social rewards that occur on social media can lead to addiction.
Social media addiction is a real addiction that impacts the brain reward system in a similar fashion as drug addiction. Teens addicted to social media spend excess time on social media and cannot decrease their use. This increases their likelihood of encountering self-harm content.
Teens who become addicted to social media are likely to experience the following negative effects that increase the risk of self-harm:
- Sleep deprivation
- Increased loneliness
- Loss of friendships
- Increased cyberbullying
- Body image and eating disorders
- Suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts
Which platforms contain self-harm content?
Most platforms prohibit content that glorifies self-harm but still allow users to have discussions about it.
Imagery depicting self-harm is prohibited on Instagram, but a study published in Psychological Medicine found that self-harm content is still common.
Content depicting more severe injuries received higher levels of engagement. Teens addicted to Instagram who post this content are thus incentivized to increase their levels of self-injury to maximize social rewards.
Users exposed to self-harm online, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have a higher risk of engaging in self-harm. A University of Vienna study found a correlation between self-harm content on Instagram and acts of self-injury. According to the study, 80 percent of users came across the material accidentally.
For example, users may enter #cat to find entertaining cat videos. Since cats are associated with scratching injuries, users that post self-harm content may utilize this hashtag, resulting in unsuspecting users being exposed to self-injury content when they intended to look at cats.
Snapchat is an image-based platform well-known for its disappearing posts, which encourage self-comparison. Although the platform prohibits self-harm imagery, it still occurs, including videos depicting suicides. The disappearing function challenges parental and law enforcement attempts to monitor negative content.
Although Tumblr officially prohibits self-harm content and does moderate it to some extent, it encourages communities and supportive interactions, including among people who self-injure. This ultimately allows the creation of anonymous self-harming communities.
Youth turn to these communities because their behavior is stigmatized elsewhere. Tumblr is a preferred platform among self-harming youth because the platform is anonymous, image-based, and easy to search.
According to a 19-year-old Tumblr user:
“Kids as young as 12 can use it, and anybody can look at your blog. Nothing is really private, and there’s a big self-harm community on there that you can get sucked into, and I got sucked into it, and it did sort of increase the intensity of my self-harm again. Like it went from sort of little gashes in my legs to I just… I wasn’t happy until I could see an artery and I’d cut through it.”
Twitter bans the promotion of self-harm content but allows images of self-harm as long as they are marked as sensitive. The platform displays a message that users must accept to choose to view the content. Twitter’s enforcement of even these limited restrictions is generally inconsistent.
The lack of moderation on Reddit makes it easy for users to post all forms of illicit content, including content about self-harm and suicide. Several well-established communities, known as subreddits, specifically revolve around this topic and have tens of thousands of members.
TikTok technically banned self-harm content, but users employ ever-changing hashtags to post videos and engage in discussions about self-harm.
In 2020, a video depicting a suicide that originated on Facebook went viral on TikTok. The platform blamed the dark web. When users search for self-harm or suicide content, they are directed to resources but still have the option to view this type of content.
Discord uses private servers that are not searchable and lacks parental controls, making it easy for users to post negative content and impossible for parents to monitor what their children view.
While Discord has officially banned content that encourages self-harm, the platform suffers from insufficient moderation and a lack of meaningful responsiveness to complaints about banned content.
What to do if you supsect your teen self-injures because of Social Media
If your child has engaged in acts of self-harm, your child is demonstrating severe underlying distress. Self-harm shares characteristics with addiction and cannot always be stopped easily.
The self-harm and the underlying causes must be addressed to protect the long-term well-being of your child. This urgent situation should be addressed as follows:
- Seek outside help by speaking with your child’s doctor and enlisting the assistance of a therapist.
- Do not regard the behavior as a phase or attention-seeking behavior. Children who go to such extreme lengths for attention need help.
- Foster a supportive, open environment, and assure your child that you are a safe person who will not judge them. Teens often turn to social media because they fear how their parents or peers may respond.
- Address your child’s social media use. Problematic social media interactions can exacerbate self-harm. This may require the assistance of a therapist or treatment center.
While it may seem that finding supportive, like-minded peers on social media would provide a healthy outlet for self-injuring youth, the opposite is true. Without the supervision of a licensed counselor, distressed teens will only feed into each other’s problems.
Can I file a social media self-harm lawsuit?
The Social Media Victims Law Center is currently involved in multiple lawsuits on behalf of children who experienced harm because of social media use, including suicide, eating disorders, drug addiction, and other forms of harm.
We also provide resource referrals for families and individuals who have been harmed by social media platforms.
We are dedicated to preventing social media companies from passively allowing young people to come to harm. If your child has engaged in self-harm because of social media, contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.
Frequently Asked Questions
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We only handle cases on a contingent fee basis. This means that we are paid a portion of any recovery obtained in the case and you do not owe us any attorneys’ fees if the lawsuit does not result in a recovery.
Every case is unique. Our attorneys will work with your family to evaluate your potential case and help you evaluate whether filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding is in your family’s best interest. Generally speaking, the types of cases we handle involve serious mental health effects, including attempted or completed suicide, eating disorders, inpatient mental health treatment, or sexual trafficking/exploitation that was caused by or contributed to through addictive or problematic social media use by teens and young adults.
We are a law firm based near Seattle, WA comprised of lawyers who have spent their entire careers representing victims who have been harmed by dangerous products. We are also parents. Shocked and troubled by the recent revelations about the harm caused to teens and young adults by social media platforms, which powerful technology companies have designed to be highly addictive, Social Media Victims Law Center was launched specifically to help families and children who have suffered serious mental harm or exploitation through social media use to obtain justice.
Matthew P. Bergman
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