Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Influence of the internet and social media

The role that the internet may play in encouraging suicide and self-harm is a source of much concern. News media have highlighted cases where young people have killed themselves after ‘cyberbullying’ on social network sites. It is possible that internet forum discussions among people who self-harm may encourage the behaviour and make it seem normal. They may also spread knowledge of different self-harming techniques. It is easy to access sites which give specific details of suicide methods. At the same time, there are many sites which offer helpful advice and support for people who self-harm and those who care for them.

Many of the parents we interviewed talked about how the internet and social media dominated their children’s lives. Some worried about how this might contribute to self-harming behaviour. Jane Z and Gwendoline emphasised the pressures which modern society places on young people. Gwendoline said, ‘I hate social media sites. They have got a lot to answer for.’ Some parents told us about internet bullying or abuse. Tracey said people were teasing her son: ‘He was getting into difficult circumstances with people, and Facebook, the internet, texting all played their part in this.’ Erica stopped her daughter using her mobile phone and Facebook accounts to protect her from upsetting interactions.
A few parents knew that their child had visited websites encouraging self-harm or describing suicide methods. Jo’s daughter had looked on the internet for ways to kill herself. Jo commented, ‘It’s the age we live in, that you can get a recipe for a cake or a lethal cocktail.’ Anna said that when her daughter joined an online community through Tumblr ‘we entered a different world of self-harm, which got rather worrying’.  Parents objected particularly to internet sites where people could post pictures of their injuries. Jackie said, ‘These sites are not helpful at all. People were showing their wounds with a sense of pride’. 
Regulation of internet sites was a common worry. Sharon was horrified by some of the pictures on Tumblr and contacted them to complain. ‘I emailed them and said, “Where’s the report button? Where is the bit on this page for me to say, this is triggering or this is harmful or I don’t like this image?” And there wasn’t one. You had to take the image and e-mail to them for them to go and look at it, by which time it’s been spread to thousands of young people.'* A few parents, like Erica and Anna, sometimes blocked their children’s media access but others were unsure about how best to respond. Jim concluded that it was impossible to police young people’s use of electronic media.
In contrast, the internet could also have a positive influence, and might help young people find ways of dealing with the need to self-harm. Nicky said her daughter had done a lot of internet research into coping strategies, including dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)**. Joanna described her daughter as a ‘digital native’ who researched everything ‘avidly’. Through the internet she had become an active member of groups such as MIND and Bipolar UK, contributing to their training programmes about self-harm. Jackie showed her daughter printouts of helpful advice from websites. Joanne found a website where her daughter had been looking for a place to go and kill herself. ‘There was a sort of positive side to it’, Joanne said, ‘because she’d looked up that there are advocates that patrol this particular area.’ Joanne herself shares her experiences through a Twitter account which is followed by lots of young people.
*'Since Talullah Wilson's suicide, Tumblr has introduced a warning that pops up when users search for terms related to self-harm, directing them towards sites offering support and calling on users to report blogs with 'inappropriate content', so they can be taken down. A Tumblr spokeswoman said the site was 'deeply committed to protecting our users' freedom of expression,' but that it draws lines 'around a few categories of content we consider damaging to our community, including blogs that encourage self-harm'.

From 'Self-harm sites and cyberbullying: the threat to children from web's dark side' by Alexandra Topping, The Guardian 11 March 2014 p15

** This is a form of therapy (using individual and group work) that helps the young person to learn skills to manage their emotions, cope with distress and improve their relationships. DBT helps the young person see that their suicidal and other unhelpful behaviours are part of their way of coping with problems and encourages them to develop more helpful behaviours and solutions.

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