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Survey: Self-harm Twitter posts jump 500 percent

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Survey: Self-harm Twitter posts jump 500 percent

A nervous teen slashes herself on purpose and stains her bedsheets. Using the self-harm Twitter hashtag #shtwt, she sends out a panicked message: “[I don’t know] how to explain it to my mum … I can’t use period as an excuse.”

Soon responses come in. Fake a nosebleed. Stub your toe. Use hydrogen peroxide or cold water to get rid of the stain.

Nobody mentions telling her mom or getting professional help for her self-harm habit.

Posting on Twitter about self-harm isn’t just common now—it has exploded over the past year. According to a study released by Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) and Rutgers University last month, self-harm posts grew by 500 percent from October last year. In October 2021 the self-harm hashtag “shtwt” was tweeted 3,880 times, but by July 2022 it was being mentioned 30,000 times a month.

The study also draws attention to the fact that Twitter and other social media companies have done little to moderate posts in which people encourage and praise harmful, albeit legal, activities. Anyone who looks up “self-harm” or the #shtwt hashtag on Twitter will first see a public service announcement with a crisis intervention number and a website. But scroll down and, too often, gory photos will follow.

Nearly 1 in 5 teenagers report that they have ever self-injured, according to the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health and suicide prevention in teens and young adults. Experts say the 500 percent increase in self-harm posts doesn’t necessarily mean the number of people doing it suddenly grew by that much. But it does suggest more people are turning to Twitter with their mental health struggles.

Janis Whitlock, a senior adviser for the Jed Foundation and a researcher who has studied self-injury for over 20 years, said certain online groups can help self-harmers bond and find accountability. But since most of Twitter’s self-harm groups are not well moderated, Whitlock says they often do more harm than good.

“Communities that are focused on hope and healing don’t share gory pictures, they’re not getting more ideas on how to cut more deeply,” she said, “What we know is not healthy is exactly what is happening there.”

Researcher Whitlock says she’s puzzled why Twitter has not already banned hashtags and removed images associated with self-harm. Twitter’s policy on self-harm prohibits users from “encouraging someone to physically harm or kill themselves” or “asking others for encouragement to engage in self-harm or suicide, including seeking partners.” According to the NCRI report, Twitter told The Financial Times it had blocked several self-harm hashtags from appearing in “any future trends on the app.”

Yet on any given day this past week, I was still able to find dozens of Twitter posts from teens looking for mutual self-harming friends using the hashtag #shtwt, and #shtwtmoots. One recent Twitter user wrote, “I want more slicey buddies.”

Saniya Soni was in middle school when she engaged in self-harm. Back in the early 2010s, she learned about it through Tumblr, another social media platform. She saw a lot of posts “almost glorifying self-harm” and said seeing them encouraged her to harm herself.

“For me, it was like … I was struggling so much to describe what I was going through and here was what other people were doing to express the pain,” she said.

By age 15, Soni was hospitalized for a suicide attempt and later put into mandatory therapy. Once she found a therapist who understood her cultural background and story, she was able to begin the healing process and walk away from self-harm.

Soni and others say dropping social media altogether isn’t necessarily the best solution. A better approach is curating what one sees online. This means muting harmful Twitter hashtags, blocking specific online friends, and entering communities that encourage healthier lifestyles.

Jacqueline Sperling, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of a young adult book on social anxiety, encourages people to conduct a self-assessment of their social media usage, which forces them to examine where they’re going online, how they’re engaging, and importantly, how it affects their emotions.

The self-examination doesn’t mean Twitter should be let off the hook either, she said.

“Companies should fine-tune their algorithms, but at the same time, we should consider, how can we empower the user, so they can be informed about how different behaviors impact their mood?”

Seven years after Soni had to be hospitalized for a suicide attempt, she says she still deals with bouts of depression. But she’s now in the first year of a clinical psychology doctoral program, which has added much-needed purpose and fuel to her life, and where she hopes to help others like herself. Looking back, she tells others who have similar struggles that they’re not alone.

“There are alternatives to expressing the pain you’re experiencing,” Soni says. “There are people who care about you even if it doesn’t seem like it.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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