Warning: Graphic. Instagram's Secret Society of Suicidal Teenagers


There are hordes of teenage girls posting photos of their arms and thighs shredded and maimed on Instagram, marketing them with a paragraph of hashtags like #selfhate, #selfharm and #suicidal. There are over one million posts with the hashtags #suicide, #suicidal and #suicidalthoughts-each. Most users in this self-harm "community" tag their photos with variations of the hashtag #secretsociety123, which alone has around 50,000 posts

Facebook, with wisdom developed over its ten years of life, is swift at removing altogether what it calls "any promotion or encouragement of self-mutilation
."

Instagram has a similar policy toward posts about self-hatred, stating "any account found encouraging or urging users to... harm themselves or commit suicide will result in a disabled account without warning." They add that communication regarding self harm is important, but that Instagram is not the place for its promotion. 


Dr. Jill M. Harkavy-Friedman, the Vice President of Research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says that while there are apps and websites that can be both positive and/or negative for management of negative emotions and depression, ultimately, the community promotes the behavior. 

"Showing pictures and images and telling stories about self- destructive behavior and ways to do it leads to an increase in that behavior. This has been shown repeatedly in the literature," she says. 

"On that website," she adds in a little show of social media ignorance, "where people are showing pictures of self-damaging behavior, that runs the risk of increasing the likelihood of someone who is already vulnerable in that risk to do that."

Instagram seems to be exercising its belief in the importance of communication instead of abiding by its rules to disable accounts: in searching hashtags related to self mutilation and suicide, a pop-up screen warns about graphic content and offers three options: to learn more, show posts or cancel. 
Pop-up screen in searching "#selfhate"


Its "Learn More" option opens up the homepage of Befrienders.org- a UK-based volunteer organization and helpline, which has only four centers in the US and all of which have dysfunctional webpages on Befrienders.org. 

While Instagram's connections with Befrienders.org is notably faulty-for Americans, at least- its lack of direct banishment of self harm hashtags is providing a community for young women who feel alone, across the world.


One Instagrammer in the self harm community, a 14-year-old girl named Jennifer (name changed to protect her identity) from Omaha, NE, has been posting to #selfhate since she was 12. 


Poised and clearly literate, Jennifer comes across as deep and thoughtful rather than eratic and desperate for attention. She says
"This community means a lot to me. I was constantly surrounded by people who did not understand what goes in my head and what I felt. Which is so hard to go through, and you constantly feel so out of place and alone." 
A problem of 21st century proportions

Jennifer, some of whose posts read "I don't need therapy, I need a hug," has been to therapy, she says, and a few family members and friends she trusts know about her account. Her mom found out once, which she says was "horrible. I can't put into words how mortified I was. She did not understand this was a coping mechanism for me." Jennifer was put into a hospital shortly thereafter, where she says "no one there understood how this could help. Which is okay, because I do it for me, no one else."


On the other side of the world is Katrina, (another name changed to protect identity): she is a Danish 15-year-old girl who has been cutting for years and goes to weekly therapy for OCD. She says the community "means that I can get to express myself, and talk to people all over the world that feels the same way. Some times we cheer each other up, other times we drag each other down in that big, black hole called sadness."

Both Katrina and Jennifer asserted that the community is more comforting for them than therapy and that they receive mostly positive feedback and uplifting messages. 
Neither has been to Befrienders.org. 

A question remains, though, about the line between community support and normalizing through community. Some posts by users in the self harm community are challenges, such as "If I get 150 reposts, I might reconsider suicide," and reccomendations to follow others. Jennifer, with 500 followers, says she receives mostly good feedback, "which makes a lot of this worthwhile." Katrina, who has been posting in the community only for a few weeks, admitted she may admire some of the other posters, but that ultimately she finds some of them inspiring.


For all of the depressing quotes and images of self mutilation thrown into the public like a life preserver- how perfect- there are bouts of uplifting posts as well, messages from the same person reading "You'll get through it," or "You are you, and that's perfection."