Along with other recent research, such findings suggest that “self-injury affects a substantial number of individuals, and that rates may be increasing,” Giordano said.
“As the prevalence of self-injury increases,” she continued, “it is not surprising that hashtags related to self-injury also are increasing on social media platforms.”
Giordano and her colleagues found several indications that this is exactly what’s happening.
For example, the team noted that while the hashtag #selfharm was almost never used in January 2018, by December, it accompanied more than 45,000 teen posts.
And by year’s end, only one of the five highlighted NSSI tags — #selfharmmm — saw a drop in overall usage.
As to what compels teens to share their self-harm experiences on social media, Giordano suggested they likely have several needs that they think apps like Instagram can fulfill.
And it could also reflect a risky copy-cat phenomenon. The more teens see others sharing posts about self-harm, the more curious they become and the more inclined they may be to imitate what they see and then share that experience online, Giordano said.
Whatever the main motivator, the analysis raised a troubling concern — the two most commonly associated hashtags with those related to self-injury were #suicide and #depression.
“Therefore, it appears that the individuals using self-harm-related hashtags are associating it with suicidal thoughts as well as feelings of depression,” she said. “To me, this emphasizes the need to discuss mental health with youth and ensure they have the support they need.”
That thought was seconded by Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who reviewed the findings.
“The significant increase in social media posts related to self-injury is a wake-up call not only to children and teens, but also to their parents and caretakers,” he said.
Noting that “the reason behind such an increase is complex,” Glatter suggested that self-harm behaviors such as cutting “can be a cry for help, and serve as a way to alert parents, friends and teachers of ongoing emotional pain and suffering.” And, he added, feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety probably got worse once the COVID pandemic took hold.