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Part 1: Adolescents Self Harm and Social Media

Part 1: Adolescents Self Harm and Social Media

by Tony Martin, MSW Intern

In this two-part series, we explore the subject of adolescent self-harm and how social media may serve as both a risk factor for this behavior and a form of social support. The aim of these posts is to offer research-based information on a topic that can be very emotional. TRIGGER WARNING: Some of this might be hard to read—especially if you love someone currently engaging in self-harm. Knowledge is power. Better understanding self-harm and its relationship with social media, can empower you to provide more unconditional support. Part I provides an overview of self-harm behavior while Part II explores how to relate to someone who self-harms and the relationship with social media.

PART 1

It’s hard to know how to react to something you don’t understand, let alone when that something scares the h*ll out of you. Young people are struggling. Having to deal with a global pandemic, our country’s reckoning with systemic racial injustice, political divisiveness, community violence, and the existential threat of climate crisis and nuclear conflict, is it any wonder we are facing what is now widely considered to be an adolescent mental health crisis? Of particular concern for parents and caregivers is the rise in adolescent non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). Also referred to as self-harm, NSSI is any action that someone takes which causes physical harm to themselves, without expecting the harm to be serious enough to prove fatal. 

Research suggests that as many as 15% – 20% of teenagers will engage in some form of self-harm in their lifetime. NSSI is even more common in adolescents who are seeking mental health treatment. Parents, caretakers, educators, and therapists all experience a range of thoughts and emotions when learning about an adolescent’s self-harm behavior. Feelings of shock, anger, guilt, anguish, and distress are both common and understandable. And yet, the most important way to support someone who self-harms is to be able to move past the shocking nature of their behavior and begin to understand underlying causes and individual motivations. 

Typically, young people first engage in self-harm around the ages of 12 – 14, though it can begin earlier or later. Though youths who identify as female engage in NSSI significantly more those who identify as male, self-harm among males has doubled in the past decade. Rates of self-harm behavior among LGBTQ+ youth are twice as high. Though cutting is the most common form, representing 40% of adolescent NSSI behavior, it can also involve things like self-battery, ingesting poison, burning skin, piercing, pulling hair, and picking at wounds. 

Young people may engage in more than one behavior. Just because someone’s cutting appears to have stopped, it doesn’t mean NSSI has totally stopped.  Self-injury can be focused on any part of the body, with behaviors directly more commonly on arms, wrists, the abdomen, and thighs. You may notice visible scars, but these are often hidden from view. If you are concerned a young person is engaging in self-harm, it’s important not to demand they reveal hidden body parts, against their will. Doing so without consent can fracture trust and create barriers for engaging in future therapy. Avoid intense confrontations by approaching requests to view scars with empathy and patience.

Common characteristic of adolescents who self-harm include low self-esteem, fear of rejection or abandonment, body image issues, and past trauma.  It’s important to note that just because we might not think an experience is serious enough to be considered traumatic doesn’t mean that it wasn’t for the individual. Trauma is in the eye of the beholder. Minimizing or misattributing underlying pain can create tension and conflict, which are barriers to healing. How your teen perceives and relates to their past experiences is what matters when discussing trauma. Being bullied is one example of something a guardian might think a young person should “toughen up” or “just get over it.”  A recent study found that people bullied have an increased risk of NSSI. Surprisingly, the study also found that the people who perpetrate bullying are also at a higher risk.  

Though teens who self-harm are more likely to report suicidal ideation, it is important to differentiate NSSI from suicidal behavior. When asked, many adolescents who self-harm say they do not want to end their life. Most are desperate for relief from unwanted negative emotions and connect self-harm behavior with feeling better, not worse. Research shows adolescents report harming themselves actually protected them against suicide, since they had fewer suicidal thoughts after engaging in NSSI. To help those who self-harm, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Never underestimate the seriousness of NSSI behavior. NSSI can cause serious physical harm requiring medical attention. Even if unintended, NSSI can also result in death.

Teens who engage in NSSI do so for a variety of reasons. Their actions can also serve more than one function. What motivates someone to self-harm can change over time. Young people have shared that they turn to self-harm as a way to cope with painful internal experiences connected to difficult memories, past trauma, and feelings of worthlessness. The most common reason adolescents report for self-harm are trying to regulate difficult thoughts and emotions. Self-harm is preceded by persistent negative thoughts and feelings and is associated with depression, hopelessness, low self-esteem, interpersonal relationship problems, and social isolation. 

Though it may not seem to make sense, physical pain from self-harm can be a form of distracting a teen from emotional pain they are unable to process. Teens believe that NSSI can bring about, albeit temporary, feelings of relief and even wellbeing. As one young person put it, “imagine you’re having a really bad day, like really bad, and you’re really angry or seriously depressed. You accidentally knock your knee into a desk, and for like a few moments, the pain totally erases the bad feelings you were having.” Other reasons teens engage in self-harm include attempts to establish autonomy, set boundaries, show toughness, experience excitement, process peer pressure, secure care, and to deal with maladaptive perfectionism. 

When adolescents don’t feel good about themselves, they turn to social media for distraction, to process feelings and feel connected. Disinformation is also rampant online. There are chat rooms where adolescents can be taunted or encouraged to self-harm.  In Part II of this post, we’ll look at how caregivers might approach adolescent self-harm and their social media use.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org

Read Part 2 Here.

 

Meet the Author

Tony Martin (he/him) earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Richmond and is currently in his final semester of UNCW’s Master of Social Work program. Tony will be facilitating a LGBTQ+ teen meditation group weekly this winter here at Stillpoint. Tony has practiced mindfulness meditation since 2014 and received training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He has sat several long silent mediation retreats including one for 6-weeks! He is passionate about supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Tony moved to Wilmington from Oakland, CA with his husband Jeff and their rescue pup Mandy. Tony & Jeff have one son in college.