Young people who engage in deliberate self-harm have encountered social media websites that promote and normalise their behaviour, and find themselves tracked by similar websites encouraging them to click and view.
Barbara Hannigan, a counselling psychologist based at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), said the algorithms that track our retail behaviour and prompt pop-up ads act in the same way when it comes to self-harm.
There was a danger that curious teenagers, with no active interest in self-harm, could get sucked in, once they had clicked on one such site and found themselves tracked thereafter.
Prof Hannigan was discussing the findings of a study undertaken by one of her students, Michelle Teo, entitled The role of social media in deliberate self-harm (DSH) behaviours among adolescents and young adults.
“If you seek out these sites but you don’t actually want to use them, they start chasing you with evocative and provocative images which can be very triggering,” she said.
Ms Teo conducted 10 in-depth interviews with young adults, average age 21, who had previously self-harmed, as part of her doctoral degree in counselling psychology.
One participant told Ms Teo: “I feel like Tumblr is a very big thing for maintaining self-harm. And I don’t really know anyone who’s been able to recover unless they like, deactivated their Tumblr and got off it completely for at least a couple of months.”
Another interviewee said she got interested in the area of self-harm through the #CutforBieber self-harm social media trend, which started when a photo of the singer smoking hash was posted, but since revealed as a hoax.
“I was interested because at the time it was quite similar to what my sister was involved in,” the interviewee said.
Prof Hannigan said self-harm sites often reinforced deliberate self-harm behaviour, where young people could enter chat rooms and forums and share images “and encourage one another to self-harm”.
She said the research had shown those most susceptible to deliberate self-harm had parental attachment issues.
Prof Hannigan, who presented the research as part of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) annual conference in Wexford this week, said young people were “digital natives” and lived in a digital world, where the dynamics were “very intense for adolescents” and where an argument between two people “could be witnessed by 1,000 people”.
“The internet can be wonderful for knowledge, friendships, and connections but there is also a shadow side,”said Prof Hannigan. “If a young person is not talking, we need to find ways to get them to open up, and not to jump in and be reactive, but to listen.”
She said parents must encourage “screen-free time” as a family, including putting away their own devices.