In my teenage years, I wasn’t the most confident girl. Typically, this had a lot to do with body image issues. Under my bed lived a secret binder, stuffed full of my secret body ambitions. Long, toned legs, slender torsos, elegant arms and slim silhouettes were carefully cut out and Pritt Sticked on to colourful paper. Alongside these dismembered limbs were articles on diet advice and toning exercises, along with my own scrawled notes to motivate myself into the perfect ‘skinny’ being.
Luckily for me, my typical teenage obsession with weight never developed into anything more than a distant fantasy, and my binder currently lies somewhere forgotten in my bedroom, collecting dust among old Girl Guide badges and GCSE certificates.
But for today’s insecure and lonely youth, an entire subculture of online social media users provides a breeding ground for unhealthy behaviour, including suicidal ideation, starvation and self-injury.
Search for the right things on Tumblr (216 million users and 109 million blogs) and Instagram (150 million users), and you’ll find some seriously dark stuff, far from the airbrushed models and professionally made-up celebrities who took pride of place in my book of “thinspiration”.
Bloodstained razor blades, cuts in a thigh spelling out the word ‘WORTHLESS’ and page after page of tiny, skinny girls (and they are always girls), displaying collarbones, petite arms and thigh gaps galore.
Between the pictures is the truly haunting material. The words. There are the public suicide notes – one I stumble upon starts with “Have you ever felt like you don’t matter? Like the world would continue and no one would notice you were gone?”
Other blogs contain self-harm diaries such as “I can’t even go a week without cutting anymore”. Worst of all are those who call on their followers to inspire them – posts such as “for every like this post receives, I will fast for two hours”.
Social networks have come under fire recently for giving teenagers a free reign to share their internal struggles online, particularly after the inquest into 15-year-old Tallulah Wilson’s death. With her alarmingly large brown eyes, honey-blonde hair and porcelain complexion, Tallulah hardly looked like the kind of girl who was scrawling “I am fat” and “UGLY” in her diary every day Tweeting “I just don’t want to wake up any more”.
Last month, the inquest into Talullah’s death revealed that she had shared images of her own self-injury online, resulting in a hysterical media storm – tabloids, concerned parents and even professionals involved in the inquest have demanded that social networks “take more responsibility” for their content. Her own mother, Sarah, pins the blame on Tallulah’s obsession with a “toxic digital world” and insists that “the likes of Tumblr should do more to protect other vulnerable young people from the insidious aspects of the internet”.
This sort of reaction is nothing new. Over a decade ago in 2002, the death of 16-year-old Tim Piper was attributed to information he found online on how to commit suicide. However, many health professionals oppose this view, and say that social media should not be blamed for creating or encouraging mental illness. David Smallwood, Treatment Director at One40 Ltd, at Harley Street in London, has an extensive background in therapy and counselling for young people. He says that, while “thinspiration” may seem to encourage eating disorders, it is not creating them.
“You’ve got to have an eating disorder to seek these sites out in the first place,” says Smallwood. “I can’t believe that anyone, under normal circumstances, would seek out pictures of extremely skinny women, unless they want to look like that.”
He says that monitoring the web for any sign of glorification of mental illness or sharing self-harm is essentially futile. “If you knew that somebody was 15 years old and drinking too much, you wouldn’t say ‘let’s close down all the pubs, because he shouldn’t be getting hold of alcohol’. He’s going to be getting hold of alcohol one way or another. I can’t imagine how you could monitor the web like that. As soon as you close down one site, another one springs up.”
He also points out that the web is not the only way to disseminate information. “The technology that we have available now means that if you took it off the web, it would be texted round schools. I can’t see that we can actually stop it. What we need is to be ready for it.”
Smallwood is not alone in believing that pointing fingers at the Internet is a very simplistic explanation. Patricia White* is a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Nurse for the NHS, and works with young people with severe mental health problems. She visits young people who have ended up in A&E because they have attempted suicide, severely self-harmed or are refusing to consume food. She assesses what kind of help they should receive.
White believes that young people are using social networks to express themselves and discuss their mental troubles because today’s social interactions have become increasingly digitalised. “While years ago, people would be more out in their community – physically out and about – a lot of their actions are now virtual,” she explains. “It’s kind of crossing virtual boundaries, rather than physical ones.”
She says that rather than blaming the Internet for young people’s problems, we should look to the lack of society around them. “If these young people had a sense of their own self-worth, and a community and good connections around them, there might still be an issue, but I would hope that there would be less of one.”
According to White, it can be helpful for young self-harmers to communicate with one another with their issues, “Particularly where there might be a shame in articulating what’s going on with them, and where words might be difficult to express.” However, she does acknowledge that this can be dangerous for young people – “on one hand you’ve got people who are going through similar experiences to you, but I’ve met people with self harm and it sometimes then becomes their identity, and that will prevent them from seeking help.”
Earlier this month, the coroner in Tallulah Wilson’s suicide inquest, Mary Hassel, wrote to Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, explaining that she thinks there is a “risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken”.
She highlighted the fact that although Tallulah was receiving treatment for depression, “no person who gave evidence felt they had a good enough understanding of the evolving way that the internet is used by young people, most particularly in terms of the online life that is quite separate from the rest of life”.
Hassel’s argument is valid – we certainly do need more research and understanding into the behaviour of young people online – it totally dismisses the chance of any positive impact of social networks, as voiced by Emily* and Lana (whose stories can be read in the boxes above).
With mounting pressure for the likes of Tumblr and Instagram to crack down on its users’ content, we could see social networks forces to enforce stronger moderation.
This article was originally written for Headucation Magazine.