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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Influence of the internet and social media on self-harm

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.
 

Erica wanted to keep her daughter safe from harmful text messages.

Erica wanted to keep her daughter safe from harmful text messages.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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And you were saying that there were Facebook things that were also…?

I don’t know. I know that. Some, I wasn’t allowing her on Facebook because of, oh I think at the time actually, it was MSN they were using more than Facebook, because of what other people might say. I didn’t want, I don’t know. I suppose I wanted to keep her safe. I didn’t want other people having a go at her. I know that some are, people at school have been particularly vicious to her because she was dressing so in black and she was saying, “Oh, you’re an EMO.” Which is…

Yes, I know.

And, “Why don’t you or let’s see if you’ve got cuts.” And looking at her arms, which, she didn’t have cuts then, and, “Why don’t you go off and kill yourself?” So she obliged them, and I think it’s those people, I didn’t want her and I still don’t want her, to have anything to do with.
 

Jane Z talks about the risks of social networking for young people. ‘These days home isn’t safe anymore, because people can get at you twenty four hours a day’.

Jane Z talks about the risks of social networking for young people. ‘These days home isn’t safe anymore, because people can get at you twenty four hours a day’.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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And, as parents, we can look at the social networking world site, from outside, and at it with a mature understanding that you have to use it and not let it use you. And teenagers know that, in their heart, and in their heads, but it is very, very difficult,  they, they kind of, it’s all very well to say, “Switch Facebook off, switch your phone off.” But, actually, they can’t because that’s the world that they’re growing up in, and I think, the generation coming up slightly behind my daughters, will live with social networking effectively. 

But these children, now, the ones, you know, maybe between the ages of, of twelve now and up to twenty five, it’s all, all of this stuff has evolved while they’re growing up, and so, they can’t look at it from outside, because it’s changed with them, and it’s changed with them growing up. So, it’s a world that they can’t live without, and, whether they want it or not, they have to live with it. So, the next generation will have the strategies to be able to do that, in a way that our generation have the strategies to, ignore it, if we want to, or use it, if we want to, to use it, rather than it using them. So, I think there is going to be this generation and this ten year age gap group, who are going to find that some of them have real, real significant problems with it. One of the thing is, you can say to a child, “Switch it off. Don’t do it.” But, they are then panicking about what’s happening while they’re not involved in it.

And the pressure of that is massive, and it’s too easy to say, “Switch it off.” It’s not possible. So, I think that was a huge bit, because then suddenly you’ve got, when, if I had problems at school, I would come home from school, and it couldn’t touch me, home was safe, and these days home isn’t safe anymore, because people  can get at you, for better or for worse, twenty four hours a day. So, we found ourselves in a position where,  things were happening through the night, that we just weren’t aware of, and, and it wasn’t, you know, I suspect in years to come we’ll find out whether there was any actual real tangible bullying going on. I don’t think there was. I think it’s just teenage pressures, and drama queen stuff, and the fact that my daughter will always try to make things right for people, and, when you hit mid-teens, the world isn’t solvable anymore. It’s not that simple. It’s all become far too complicated for that, so you try to sort out problems, and you can’t, or you create another problem as a result, and, and then it all becomes very overwhelming. 
 

Vicki is concerned about the effects of internet abuse on her daughter.

Vicki is concerned about the effects of internet abuse on her daughter.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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I obviously, felt really, really angry with this this guy who’d been manipulating her but I do think there is a thing with the with the internet at the moment that kids almost treat it like it’s not real and I was asking myself questions like, “Okay. Would I be more upset if he was physically abusing her?” In the end, I think it had a very similar effect on her on her psyche whether he’d done it online or whatever. The only good thing is that she wasn’t in physical danger. She couldn’t have got pregnant. 

She couldn’t have got harmed in any way like that but I am concerned about it, going forward, what sort of effect it will have on her relationships with people in in the future and she says she is very, finds it very difficult to trust people. But I think I think the main thing that was going through my head was damage limitation. I wanted to take away the main threat, which was all this stuff being uploaded to the internet and her having other people see it, and protecting her from too much rubbish in the future.
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’. 
 

Sharon discusses the use of photography for self-expression but acknowledges that some online images could trigger self-harm

Sharon discusses the use of photography for self-expression but acknowledges that some online images could trigger self-harm

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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Can you say a bit more about the phrase you used, ‘What is art?’ in relation to photos on these social networking sites.

It’s, people express themselves in various different forms. I suppose it’s a similar argument to what is art and what is pornography, type of thing. What is a self-expression of how you’re feeling, that you’re, you’re getting it out there in photography or drawings or whatever media you use and what is just advertising what you’ve done, basically. I think it can be quite a fine line sometimes and with the internet, how it is now, there’s just stuff everywhere, absolutely everywhere and if you, if you were to search for self-harm, I’d imagine, rather than a lot of self-help groups, the first things that come up would be a lot of images that may well be, “This is what I did today.” Or, “This is what so and so did.” Or, “Look at this. How awful is this?” “Ha ha,” sort of awful, you know, and it’s just very triggering, I think. It can be very triggering for people especially if they’re trying to seek some help, a lot of young people will turn to the internet straight away because it’s easy access, it’s there and it’s, they might not be able to or be in the frame of mind to determine for themselves what what’s been artificially set up or what’s been done as artwork or as a project or something or, or what is real. I think that can be quite difficult for a lot of people to get their heads round sometimes, without it being put on there, “This is artificial. This is not real. Don’t attempt this.” Or warnings or anything. It’s just there and you make of it what you will.

Do you think some people cut themselves as a form of artistic expression?

It wouldn’t surprise me, especially if, if they are taking photos straight away of it and putting it up and blogging it all the time, rather than, “Oh I did this to myself. I feel quite bad. Does it look infected?” sort of comments, especially when things are written, it’s difficult because it’s obviously, in some form it’s their way of dealing with something but it’s not, it seems to be more predetermined that way or if I do it like this or if I write this and then take a picture of it, it will look however they want it to look. I can appreciate why people would do that because it is a form of getting it out. It is a form of self-expression. It is a way of, of telling people something is wrong here, something is going on but not necessarily saying something is going on and I’d like some help please.
 

Isobel was scared when her daughter told her she found self-harm websites helpful

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Isobel was scared when her daughter told her she found self-harm websites helpful

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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One thing I would say is those awful websites that encourage young people to, I don’t know what could be done to sort of, to stop them.

I suppose you can’t really. It’s free speech but they really do seem to be, you know, very, very instrumental and I know that my daughter has looked at them. She’s admitted to me that she’s looked at them and she’s found them helpful, which kind of scares me.

Is that mostly the cutting ones?

I’m not sure.

Or is that ones for overdoses too?

Yes, there are ones to tell you how to over, you know, how to commit suicide and  and you know, supporting your feelings of suicide and I know there have people been doing it online and it’s just horrible. I, you know, I wish something could be done about that because when you think how much time young people spend online and…

Yes.

And seeing that, it’s just awful, you know, reinforcing the ideas that you should go through with it and young people do, you know, imitate each other.
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.
 

Alexis asks how parents should respond to their children’s use of social networking.

Alexis asks how parents should respond to their children’s use of social networking.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
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I mean I think, I think again, youngsters with any sort of mental health issues, I mean Facebook can be a terrible way of them outpouring their negativity. That used to really, really bother me, really bother me. Such is social networking. I think it’s a very, it’s very good barometer that like for my daughter now uses Facebook just like anyone else would but I think for, for a lot of, you know, a lot of young people, who are distressed, they let, they put stuff out there in the public forum because, I don’t know, maybe it’s just another release but actually, it’s hard for those people who are friends, family seeing this. Do I respond? Don’t I respond? Do you, you know, when, when you see that child, when they come home from school, “Now you put something on Facebook, how are you feeling?” And then they get angry at you but it’s like, “Hold on a minute, you put this out there.” It all gets very confusing. 

I mean these are things, these are new things that we’re having to deal with. As, as parents, if we’re on our children’s Facebook and our and our children put things, should we be responding but once we know the information, what do we do with that information? That is a whole new area of, of having, having to deal, sometimes I think, as parents, maybe we just should not actually have our children on Facebook. Maybe that would be a more peaceful place for us but, on the other hand, we kind of feel if they’re troubled, we need to know. Hard, difficult one, that’s a really tangled one.
 

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Jim investigated ways of monitoring his daughter’s internet use.

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Jim investigated ways of monitoring his daughter’s internet use.

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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Yeah, yeah, so we’re never clear as to how happy we are about [our daughter] and this other child exchanging texts on a daily basis. Some of it can be hugely supportive and useful and some of it can be the opposite. But there’s nothing one can do about it. I remember very early on, because I worked in the computer business and, as you’re probably aware, there’s something called keystroke software that you can install on a computer and it will tell you absolutely everything that was done on that computer, character by character, line by line. And I thought about installing that on the computer that [my daughter] was using just to figure out, because some of the websites are just appalling and if you ever seriously look into what’s out there on the web, just so damaging. And so I went to the techies who I used to work with and they said, “Look, there’s no point because what are you going to do then? You know, you can block access to this site but they’ll always find a way round it.” I mean the ward at the moment thinks it’s blocked Facebook and You Tube but they haven’t because the girls have out-thought the security software and this is something they do standing on their heads. You wouldn’t want to be the computer administrator. You know, they’re doing their best but… so, I never did do that because, you know, my friend was quite right, what would I have learned that would have been any use to me?  

And now with smart phones, of course, and I think [my daughter] is the only girl on the ward who doesn’t have a smart phone. She says she doesn’t want one and we’re very happy about that because one wouldn’t, they’re off in corners, you know, Facebooking and so on and Christ knows what’s going on. Some units, they won’t allow them phones, won’t allow them smart phones. But it’s a fine line because some of the stuff is genuinely supportive and useful. So, it’s a two-edged sword and I think that one just has to accept that they come from a generation where they assume electronic communication. They assume Facebook. They assume My Space. They assume sites that I’ve never even heard of, you know, places they go for music just so, yeah, I suppose one just has to has to come to terms with one’s own misgivings and just hope that the pluses outweigh the minuses.
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.
 

Young people have told Joanne that her Twitter messages help them understand self-harm from a parent’s point of view.

Young people have told Joanne that her Twitter messages help them understand self-harm from a parent’s point of view.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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I go on Twitter. I’m on Twitter and that is brilliant because I can be anonymous and I can say what she’s done and I have a lot of people following me,  who self-harm, who will tell me that it’s nice to see it from a parent’s point of view  because it helps them and they can understand what their parents are going through.

Right. Oh, that’s really interesting, yes.

Yeah.

And that’s been helpful to you as well?

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, yeah and a lot of encouragement as well for me as well as me encouraging the young people that are harming.
 

Jackie could see both positive and negative aspects of the internet.

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Jackie could see both positive and negative aspects of the internet.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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And you mentioned websites that might encourage self-harm. Can you say a bit about that?

The, I, yes, I did come across some. To be honest, my head was that messed up at the time I couldn’t even look at a lot of the sites that were there. Certainly sites that as an adult you would think, “[mhm] It’s not really encouraging yeh, but I can see why children would think that it was” you know. So I remember looking at sites that were like, “[mhm] That’s wrong. I’ve got mixed, mixed messages.” In a teenager’s eyes it’s almost like encouragement, definitely. The ones, there’s ones that say, “Look, if you’re going to do this, make sure everything’s clean, things are sterile.” I totally agree with that, absolutely. But there was other stuff there that was almost like people were showing their wounds with a sense of pride. And that’s wrong. Those sites are not helpful at all. It was, there definitely needs to be some bar on that. It was almost like they were proud to display what they had.  

And even that in itself, some of the pictures, you know, girls, you know, showing their wounds, and just their posture, the way they were standing, they didn’t even need to show their faces. For me, if you’re going to show wounds, don’t show their faces, because the, expressions to me almost looked like they were wearing it with a sense of pride. It was almost like, like an attention thing. People see you chopping yourself self, they go, “She just wants attention.” There’s a lot of that as well, I would say. I mean even my daughter’s father thought that initially. I thought it at points, “Is this just for attention? Did we not give her attention?” 

So, yes, websites, yes, they need to be filtered through, they need to be policed, definitely, because some of them can be seen as encouraging it as a good way to express yourself. Because it’s when you get the initial cut, the adrenalin kicks in and that’s when you get that satisfaction that, “The pain’s away now, I feel better,” not for very long, wrong, you know. There needs to be a lot more policing on that. A lot of negativity, yes, it’s very mixed. 

It’s quite confusing actually and as a parent, to read a lot of that, your head’s already messed up, yes. I mean my daughter never looked at any of it. I tried to, I showed her printouts of what I thought were helpful things. What you learn is, if you’re looking on a web site what you want is, this is helpful, dos and don’ts, yes. Give them space. Don’t get on their back all the time. Don’t nag at them all the time, you know. Try, don’t shout at them, you know. Try and listen to them. Give them space. Don’t butt in. Let them say what they need to say, even if you’re itching to get your bit in, you know. L- 

Think leave the bedroom door open, you know, ajar a bit, you know. Just police it, but try not to make it too obvious. Think tips, tips, tips, dos and don’ts. That’s helpful, that’s helpful. Seeing girls with smiles on their faces showing wounds and stuff and, you know, almost encouraging words, I couldn’t look at that, it just made me feel sick. It was making a mockery of a very serious issue that destroys families, it destroys them, totally destroys them. We’re all together as a unit again. Two years ago we were destroyed, we were destroyed. Those sites do not help 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.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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