In December 2017, 14-year-old UK resident Molly Russell took her own life. About a year later, her father Ian Russell told BBC in an emotional interview that “Instagram helped her take her life.” Now, social media giant Instagram has announced that it will be banning graphic images of self-harm from the platform.
In the aftermath of Molly’s suicide, her family found that she had been following several Instagram accounts that posted photos of self-harm, depression, and suicide. He believed that these posts had influenced his daughter to take the drastic step.
Studies have shown that most social media users are teens – Instagram especially has seen a spike in adolescent users in the recent years. The pertinent question is – are there others like Molly getting influenced into self-harm by such social media posts?
How graphic content affects children
It is not difficult to see why Molly’s father said what he did about Instagram. While the #Selfharm no longer yields any posts on the platform, there are plenty of other hashtags related to suicide which lead to hundreds of posts, some of which encourage, and even romanticise self-harm. TNM even found a profile of a 16-year-old who said in her bio that she wanted to die.
Take a look at some such posts on Instagram.
So, what happens when a child or teen sees these posts?
Dr U Vivek, a consulting psychiatrist at Renai Medicity in Kochi, Kerala explains that adolescents as a demographic are highly suggestible, exacerbated by the fact that teenage is a turbulent time for most of them. Due to this, they may start emulating something they think they can relate to without understanding its consequences.
So, for instance, if a teen is going through a break up, facing rejection, or going through any other stress, and they see a post online which suggests that self-harm relieves their emotional pain, they may be compelled to try it without understanding the impact.
“In many cases, teens who get into such behaviour are presenting with the onset of personality disorders, or a larger mental health issue,” Dr Vivek points out. “When allowed to continue unchecked, it affects their personal relationships, and adds further stress to their life, which makes them turn to self-harming behaviour even more. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
Troubled or lonely teenagers are also more likely to get influenced by such posts to feel a sense of belonging. Take the example of the Blue Whale Challenge which had caused widespread panic in India in 2017 after a Mumbai teen’s suicide, allegedly due to the online ‘game’. In the Blue Whale Challenge, a curator apparently takes the participant through a set of 50 tasks which facilitate self-harm, sleep deprivation and isolation, and ultimately, suicide.
Experts had told TNM then that a teen is more likely to participate, and self-harm, when they are already experiencing depressive or anxious episodes, and probably because it gives them a sense of achievement and belonging with others who are experiencing the same thing.
‘You cannot ban everything’
While agencies such as Instagram do have algorithms in place which detect any “trigger words,” these options can be easily dismissed. As pointed out in BBC’s interview Ian Russell, people can simply click on “ignore” and dismiss the cautionary messages warning of graphic content which pop-up on the screen when someone runs a search for these terms on the platform.
Further, when someone likes a page or hashtag on Instagram, the site suggests similar posts for the individual to follow. This leads to those searching for harmful posts to be able to access more of the same, which may aggravate their mindset. In response to the incident, Facebook (which owns Instagram) issued a statement saying that it was “sorry”.
Dr Vivek shares that increasing use of social media among impressionable teens is indeed leading to a plethora of issues pertaining to body image, body dysmorphic disorder, peer pressure, eating disorders and so on. While lauding Instagram for banning graphic images of self-harm, Dr Vivek also points out a very simple reality of the internet – you cannot ban everything. Dr Gangadhar BN, Director of National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru, too points out that a ban will not address the root of the issue.
Dr Gangadhar states that teenagers will always be subject to some stress or pressure. However, it is when this behaviour is taken to a digital platform that it gets exemplified manifold. “So how can we say that a ban on such pages and content will be effective in handling the larger problem, which is that teens do face certain pressures at that age. Many of them might be experiencing a mental health problem, but we cannot say that it is merely because of social media that they are affected,” he argues.
Dr Vivek believes that what is required is actually training children in life skills, stress management. Teachers and parents also need to impart skills in identifying signs of mental health issues in kids so that pre-emptive steps can be taken.
Cannot ignore positives of social media
Dr Gangadhar points out that despite the negative influences of social media on teens, several people have utilised these forums in a healthy manner and use it to address several important issues, including mental health. For instance, Indian-origin Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh uses her channel ||Superwoman|| to spread positive messages and has spoken about her struggles with the depression.
In November 2018, Lilly announced she was taking a break from YouTube for her mental health.
Meanwhile, the UK is beginning to debate a ban on social media sites as a solution to keep individuals from easily accessing such graphic content. However, an overall ban overlooks the benefits of these platforms altogether.
“We can’t ignore the good that comes from such pages as well. Several people find solace in online support group. As long as this is done within a healthy balance and they do not become dependent on this altogether, there is no harm to turning to such groups for getting some moral support,” says Dr Gangadhar.
However, he also acknowledges that these are also just supportive measures which would be more effective in combination with the right care and attention.
“While these groups help individuals, they might not be as effective as when they are given the right treatment and care. The family needs to be involved - when the family dynamics are improved and children feel more accepted and understood, it’ll help to encourage communication in the household. This would have a more significant impact on the child who may be experiencing emotional turmoil,” adds the NIMHANS director.