Content warning: Mentions of self-harm

A recent study on digital self-harm published by Child and Adolescent Mental Health discussed the connections between digital and physical self-harm and the ties to suicidality for kids and teens.

With rampant social media usage and ongoing conversations about the youth mental health crisis, we wanted to talk about how to support them without stifling the desire for external connection.

Healthline spoke with Jami Dumler, LCSW, regional clinical director with Thriveworks, a mental health professional that has experience treating children and families.

Dumler shared her insight on why kids may lean into oversharing on the internet but how it can shift to be more positive.

Digital self-harm are social media posts with negative and disparaging remarks that someone’s posted anonymously about themselves and can include when physical self-harm is discussed in a way that’s graphic and harmful.

Dumler says one reason social media has become the stop for discussions on mental health is because of the desire for widespread support.

“A lot of teens nowadays are more well-versed on mental health than my generation and the generations before that. I think a lot more want their friends to talk about it and support each other, and I think that’s often where they’re turning,” she says.

Sometimes it’s a cry for help. “‘If I put this on social media, I might get some responses, messages, texts, people checking in on me, making sure I’m okay and supporting me,’” she says.

But Dumler says that bringing in the anonymous element is one of the dangerous parts, often because it’s connected to negativity without the positive intent or the ability for other viewers to consent.

“It’s usually putting yourself down saying really nasty things about yourself online and not necessarily sharing your story in attempts to get support or create understanding,” Dumler says.

“Teens that already are in a negative place, putting this negative content of themselves online and then often getting a lot of negative feedback can reinforce really negative core beliefs, really dampening their self-image and self-confidence,”

When it comes depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, it can be scary to share your story.

Because of the continued stigma surrounding mental health, the desire to avoid any judgment can lead to posting anonymously.

There’s an importance in self-expression, building community, and stigma reduction through sharing experiences. “We need to talk about mental health to reduce the stigma,” Dumler says.

But there’s a clear line between sharing your story and utilizing media platforms to tear yourself down, share graphic posts, and disregard other users’ right to safety.

It’s important to recognize that sharing your experience isn’t inherently an issue, and it’s a natural desire to have.

“For a lot of teens, it’s almost a cathartic process, similar to a form of journaling where they can put in a post feeling a release — a feeling like it’s not a secret that they’re holding in,” Dumler says.

“When we hold secrets that really increase the shame, loneliness, often those negative ruminations cycle.”

If you’re someone who’s aiming to share their experience navigating mental illness or self-harm recovery, Dumler offers some suggestions for doing so in a careful way, including:

Putting Trigger Warnings

A trigger or content warning at the top of a post or page provides a signal to a potential reader that sensitive content is to follow.

There’s a trigger warning at the beginning of this article for self-harm, in the event that someone may feel extreme discomfort reading the content written due to their previous experiences.

Dumler says this is an important step in ensuring that your content is more helpful than harmful and is a major reason digital self-harm has a negative impact.

She shared that graphic details and general negativity can affect both the poster and those reading. “I’ve even heard some comments reporting people talking about how to hide razor blades, which is concerning and stepping into a codependent, influence space.”

She says, “In terms of trying to reduce stigma [people can] put a trigger warning before that so if people know they’re not in the right place to read that, then they can avoid that content. That’s usually missing from these anonymous pages.”

Dumler tells us how both parents and teens can lean towards positive self-expression safer online without taking the laptop away completely.

“When you put content out there on social media, there are a million great voices and supportive responses. But, there are often still some negative responses,” Dumler says.

“While there’s often more positive voices, usually when we’re not in the best mental health space, the negative voices get louder to us, so be mindful of that and make sure [you] have a coping plan to deal with the possible negative voices.”

Only make content available to some

One option is mitigating the negativity by limiting who can access it from the beginning. An initial way to do this is by making your profiles private. Other options include:

  • There’s Twitter Circle, where you create a group of friends that you can share and connect with versus the public or the entirety of your followership
  • Instagram stories lets you choose who can view your temporary posts
  • Facebook allows you to choose for your post to only be seen by friends or pre-selected lists of folks on your friends list.

Standout: Because it’s the internet there aren’t any guarantees — remember that anyone is free to screenshot and share. But keeping your circle for direct sharing small can help curb some of the unhelpful attention your post could receive.

Share, but don’t invite feedback

Similar to in-person conversations, not all acts of vulnerability require a response.

If your goal was to speak your truth rather than spark an open discussion, Dumler suggests considering turning off the ability to comment on posts that may be sensitive.

“Boundaries like that can really help where you can still have that support, still share your story, but take away some of the negative mental health aspects that could potentially come,” she says.

The desire to harm yourself, even digitally, indicates a need for additional support.

To determine how you can best support yourself, Dumler says one of the most important parts is understanding your triggers. She suggests considering questions such as:

What brings on the desire for self-harm, and when you do, what does it provide?

Once you’ve determined where the desire comes from, you can fulfill it in a less harmful way.

Dumler suggests asking yourself:

  • If I’m trying to get a release, can I hit a pillow or can I go for a run or a walk?
  • If I’m trying to numb myself, can I hold an ice cube or take a really cold shower?
  • If it’s seeing a physical representation of my emotional pain, can I draw with a red sharpie?

These are some suggestions on coping with difficult feelings when they’re acute, but this doesn’t replace speaking with your own mental health professional and the caring adults in your life.

If you find yourself feeling down in a significant or consistent way, or have the desire to harm yourself (online or in-person) consider speaking with your guardians about how you can access mental health services or join a support group.

While Dumler agrees with setting boundaries around cell phone and computer usage for your teen, much of supporting your kid includes addressing any help or support they may need prior to or during bouts of depression or emotional difficulty.

Providing Safe Space

Creating a space where your kid can talk to you openly with judgment is vital.

Dumler suggests having parts of your week that are dedicated to one-on-one time with your child, even if it’s just dropping them off at practice or rehearsal.

“A lot of parents are concerned or hesitant to have those conversations, thinking they will upset their teen or trigger them, but they’re already thinking about it,” she says.

Dumler says that letting your teen know that the way they may be feeling isn’t uncommon and they aren’t alone, in addition to reminding them that you’re a safe space to share those feelings with can make a difference.

“That gives them a safe, expected place where if they want to open up they’re going to be able to,” she says.

Watching for changes

As a way to be proactive when it comes to your kids, Dumler says to keep an eye out for any changes in behavior, such as:

  • Shifts in sleeping, which can look like sleeping noticeably more or less
  • Increased isolation
  • Significant changes in eating habits

These don’t automatically mean your kid is engaging in self-harm, but it could indicate that something is going on and they could use your support.

Dumler also encourages parents to be attentive to how their kids talk about themselves, whether about their body images or their mental health.

Holding Boundaries and Modeling Behavior

Dumler says when it comes to mitigating unhealthy relationships with social media, boundaries around their cell phone can be helpful. This could include:

  • Limiting what apps their kids have through parental controls
  • Rules around having phones late at night in their room
  • Keeping an eye on what they put online

She also suggests modeling the behavior you want your kids to have around cell phone and social media, even if it’s not explicitly stated as a “rule.”

“Kids soak up everything,” she says.

This could look like putting phones down at meal time or when you’re spending quality time together.

Youth are in need of support when it comes to their mental health. Social media, while a powerful tool, can sometimes be used to further harm.

When there’s continued shame surrounding mental illness and discussing mental health, it’s important to distinguish the line between online self-expression and digital self-harm.

According to Dumler, this can be done through digital self-care, and there are many ways to enact this practice, including creating boundaries around your social media usage and being mindful of everyone who could see your post.

For parents, boundaries and creating a safe space for your kids are vital, in addition to modeling the behavior you’d like them to see.

If you feel that professional support for you or your child is the best course of action, there are many online options for identifying types of care in your area or signing up for telehealth services.