You’re teaching your kid to drive. They’re taking their first left turn at a busy intersection and you’re watching your life flash before your eyes.
Are you getting grey hairs just thinking about it?
It’s scary. But, the only way they learn is to keep practicing, even if you’re next to them, clutching onto the seat belt for dear life.
When they struggle, the solution isn’t to blame the car and get rid of it entirely. Or quit lessons altogether and stop teaching them how to drive.
So, how does this correlate to self-harm?
Before we get into this topic, let’s begin with this. We know self-harm is extremely scary to think about as parents. It’s comforting to think that we’ve shielded our kids from it and it’s not something we have to worry about inside our homes.
We’re here to talk about it because ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s dangerous.
Self-harm rates have accelerated and social media is increasingly the outlet kids use to talk about it. In 2018, over 1.2 million Instagram posts included hashtags like #selfharm, #hatemyself, #selfharmawareness and #cutting, representing a 93.1% increase.
Even though social media platforms have buckled down on hashtags, the content is still readily accessible.
“I jumped on Instagram yesterday and wanted to see how fast I could get to a graphic image with blood, obvious self-harm or a weapon involved,” said Amanda Giordano, an associate professor in the Mary Frances Early College of Education. “It took me about a minute and a half.”1
Never before has such content been this available.
BUT. We make a promise to you right now.
There is hope. Always.
So, let’s first get into the heavy stuff and answer this pressing question.
Why are kids posting about self-harm on social media?
Let’s think back to our teenage days. Yes, those awkward days that most of us are SO glad are over. As we stumbled through those years, what was something we all experienced?
The need to belong. No matter where, we all wanted to feel like we fit in with a group and it’s this exact need that motivates many teens to post about or interact with self-harm content on social media.
They may post to seek support, teach others how to self-harm, or copy others’ behavior.
Why? Let’s break it down.
1) Post to Seek Support
Social media connects kids with common interests, hobbies or perspectives, providing a sense of community that they crave. Especially if they feel isolated offline, kids lean into this online community for support.
They may post self-harm pictures and videos as a cry for help, looking to find:
- comfort in sharing their emotional and psychological struggles with others
- reassurance that someone out there is experiencing the same thing
- help from their community to stop self-harming
Now, let’s be explicitly clear. This is not attention-seeking. It’s a genuine expression of indescribable pain.
2) Teach Others How To Self-Harm
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? Remember that all kids experience the need to belong. Teaching others to self-harm can help them to feel:
- A reassurance that they are normal.
- A confirmation that dark thoughts in their head are going on in other kids’ minds too.
- A bond over their misery.
Turning to social media to discuss different forms of self-harm, how to hide it, or do it in a way that doesn’t lead to infection helps them connect with other kids. In many ways, this may be the only community where they feel truly understood.
3) Copy Others’ Behavior
We’ve all seen a trend begin as a new challenge sweeps across social media and everyone jumps on board. While they may never take over as a “noticeable” trend, self-harm pictures and videos are out there and quick to find. Your kid may not go searching for it but can be taken down this dark path quickly. A social media algorithm can:
- Push out a video about self-harm and notice a kid watching it all the way.
- Adapt to this user behavior and start showing more self-harm content.
- Take over a kid’s feed, showing them this dark content over and over.
Kids are sponges, readily absorbing what they’re exposed to. Maybe they didn’t even know what self-harm was a few months ago but lately, they’ve been hearing about it on TikTok. Now, it seems like the normal response when feeling sad and they’ll start self-harming as a coping tool.
Social media operates like two sides of the same coin. It can be a safe space for those struggling, but can also become an outlet where self-harm is normalized.
So how can you respond as a parent?
Taking away social media is not a true solution.
Think back to the example of teaching your kid to drive. When your kid is struggling, the answer isn’t to get rid of the car or give up on them. While it solves the immediate problem of the difficulty in learning to drive, it doesn’t address the core problem or help your kid in the long run.
Social media is the car your kid learns to drive. Guiding them through the online world are the driving lessons.
Taking either (or both) away doesn’t help your kid because social media isn’t the real problem.
The real problem is PAIN. Indescribable pain that your kid doesn’t know how to express otherwise.
This is pivotal. The “healthy parenting community” and parental control apps will tell you that social media is 100% to blame for self-harm. They’ll say that getting rid of it will solve the effects of social media but it’s time to flip the script.
It’s time to look at this with a shift in perspective that dives right into the heart of the problem.
When you take away social media, what are you left with? The fact that your kid is HURTING.
Self-harm is not attention-seeking. It’s a genuine expression of indescribable pain. They may have been first exposed to self-harm on social media but removing all their access is like getting rid of a car without teaching your kid to drive it.
This perspective shows you how to talk about self-harm in a whole new way.
Flipping the script and moving beyond the demonization of social media allows you to truly help your kid. It brings hope to a difficult situation because you have the pieces in place to:
1) Act with compassion, not panic.
Remember that we talked about the desire to belong as a motivation to self-harm? Kids just want to feel understood by someone. What could reacting with panic communicate to them?
- They’re broken.
- They’re abnormal.
- They’re dangerous.
Imagine how different it’d feel to approach them with compassion. Instead of reinforcing the sense that they don’t belong or that there is something wrong with them, you show them your arms are the first place to run to. They experience what you’ve said all along: you love them more than anything. You’re there for them in anything.
When they experience this, your entire relationship can shift. You’re actively laying the groundwork for your kid to turn to you first, not last.
2) Teach, not restrict
Have you heard the term “emotional intelligence?” If you haven’t, it’s the ability to recognize, name, and healthily respond to emotions.
Self-harm is an outward sign of a kid’s inward struggle to process their difficult and painful emotions. Restriction reinforces this.
- It leaves them trapped in a cycle of painful emotions they don’t know how to handle.
- It denies them the tools they need to break the cycle.
- It creates distance between you and your kid.
Imagine how teaching emotional intelligence could break this cycle. Give your kid the words to name and express their pain as a coping outlet that doesn’t spiral into self-harm. Teach them how to communicate what they’re feeling and needing in the moment, instead of leaving them to struggle silently with emotions too difficult to express.
So, you see? Pure restriction isn’t an answer. In fact, it may harm your kid long-term by denying them the tools they need to properly cope with hard emotions. Teaching your kid to recognize, name, and express what they’re going through is a long-lasting solution that brings you both closer together.
3) Build trust, not isolation
We get it. Banning social media after discovering your kid is being exposed to self-harm pictures and videos sounds like the best solution. But, have you ever heard of the boomerang effect?
Simply put, it happens when a person feels their freedom of choice is being infringed upon so they react by going to the opposite stance.
We covered it earlier. Kids may decide to engage with online self-harm communities because they don’t feel supported anywhere else. Restricting all social media and ripping away their only sense of community could have the opposite effect than planned. In fact, this could:
- Increase your kid’s feelings of isolation.
- Tempt them to self-harm to cope with the loneliness.
- Withdraw from offline relationships because they feel even more misunderstood and disconnected.
Imagine the consequences of this boomerang effect. Instead of encouraging your kid to trust you with their difficult emotions, they pull away. As they withdraw, the temptation to self-harm may grow; not because they’re actively being shown self-harm content but because it’s the only way they know how to cope.
So, how do you avoid this pitfall?
Help your kid “community swap.” Starting at home, build trust and connection with honest conversations. This isn’t the time to buckle down on them. It’s the time to explicitly state (over and over) how unconditionally you love and support them, no matter what’s happened. We know it’ll be hard. It’ll take time. But, think about what your kid will see. They’ll see their parent reacting with compassion, helping them process emotions, and creating a safe place where they don’t have to hide.
This is where hope comes in.
Remember we said it’s always possible. Even when your kid is self-harming. When you leave behind the panic and restrictions of the “healthy” parenting community, you create the possibility for real hope and healing for your kid.
The Aqua One is the tool you need.
For the first time, you have the ability to be proactive instead of reactive. With the activity feed in your Parent Dashboard, you can see if they're viewing self-harming content. Through their answers to the Mental Health Checks, you’ll have unparalleled insight into any growing emotional problems. With all this knowledge, you can start conversations about self-harm as soon as it enters your kid's online world.