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The Rise of the Self-Harmie
26th January 2014 ... Charlotte
This week there has been a lot of media attention around young people taking to the internet to broadcast images of their self harm. This exposes behaviour that is usually thought to be secretive with many individuals going to extreme lengths to keep it private, and I therefore found this latest craze difficult to understand. Of course I have always known about the existence of harmful sites; however it was my impression that these were in the minority. In recent years there have been calls to ban pro-ana sites which encourage behaviours associated with severe eating disorders, this latest trend focussing instead on sharing acts of self harm and suicide.
With Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat now popular ways for young people to communicate thoughts and feelings, many are posting suicidal messages and so called 'self harmies'. Postings can quickly escalate competitively as young people contend for the 'worst' injury, encouraging each other to inflict further pain on themselves. However the extent of an individual's injury is not an accurate indicator of their psychological distress.
So why are young people participating in this dangerous craze? For some it may appear to help reduce their isolation and loneliness, now realising that they are not alone in their suffering. Other young people may find the sympathy and approval of strangers comforting. It may be the first time their inner turmoil has been recognised by others, and such attention may seem to be reassuring. They may benefit from communicating with others in a similar place, self harm providing a uniting theme. However this normalising (and potentially glamorising) of self harm is dangerous as it promotes the behaviour as an acceptable and healthy coping strategy. It also distracts from the reality that self harming often becomes addictive and can cause permanent scars, disability and even accidental death.
Posting self harm on social media may be particularly unhelpful for individuals who are striving to recover, and who inadvertently come across these triggering images when browsing the sites.
Recent findings have discovered that young people are more likely to turn to the internet for help than any other source of information or advice. While much good support and information is available, this is counteracted by sites that promote and encourage harmful behaviours.
The potential devastation caused by these sites was recently highlighted by the suicide of fifteen year old Tallulah Wilson. This talented young dancer turned to the internet to find help in coping with her feelings of self-loathing. Creating a cocaine addicted fantasy character Tallulah escaped the reality of her turmoil through this imaginary persona. The teenager also posted pictures of self harm in a bid to impress her 15000 followers. Tallulah spent more and more time online as the boundaries blurred between fantasy and reality. In October 2012 her mother discovered Tallulah’s social media account and requested it to be deleted, which created conflict between her and her daughter. Six days later Tallulah threw herself in front of a train. Mrs Wilson is now calling for safer internet regulations for the 'toxic media world'.
I strongly believe that social media sites have a responsibility to make the internet as safe as possible for young people, although their modest levels of proactive behaviour don't inspire confidence that they share this sense of social responsibility.
So what does this mean for schools? Although it is difficult for schools to monitor what students do outside of the classroom, they can support vulnerable young people by helping them avoid desires to self harm and guiding them away from viewing or publicising such behaviours. It is important to recognise that this doesn't preclude all discussion about self harm which would effectively reinforce the associated stigmas, but the sensitive nature of the issue requires support to be provided in a safe and recovery focused environment.
When considering the benefits that young people perceive from sharing their self harm online, isolation seems to be a particular issue. However this could more constructively be addressed by peer support through schools or via charities such as MindFull.
The issue of school bullying or cyber-bullying may also be a factor driving young people to share images of their self harm, although this behaviour can also trigger or worsen such bullying. It is pleasing that many schools now focus on the enforcement of bullying policies, although they continue to struggle with the challenges posed by new technologies and resultant changes in social interaction.
The internet has been a disruptive technology providing access to a world of information and opinion, and many people consider the communication possibilities as an invaluable lifeline. However it is also difficult to control or mediate information on the internet, which also provides opportunity for those with naive or malicious intent. Promoting safe sites that contain reliable information must be a priority for schools, parents and organisations that focus on supporting the welfare and wellbeing of young people. But we also need to encourage young people themselves to consider the potential impact of comments and images they upload. Unless this happens I worry that we will increasingly move towards a society where people who are suffering will only feel confident of sharing their problems with strangers on social media.