Young People, Social Media & Mental Health

Trigger Warning

Its no big secret that social media is impacting young people’s mental health. A quick google search shows that social media has caused an increase in low self esteem caused by unhealthy comparisons to others, (such as Instagram influencers posting picture perfect lives and ‘plastic’ celebrities), envy, social media addiction, feeling disconnected due to a reduction in face-to-face interactions (which in some cases leads to social anxiety), and a whole array of other issues. And don’t even get me started on the venom that is ‘pro ana’ Tumblr. Statistics are showing a rise in mental illness in young people that is congruent with the rise of social media (the rate of teens experiencing psychological distress in America grew by 71% from 2008 to 2017 which is alarming, but what’s even more alarming is the rate of teens experiencing suicidal thoughts has also increased by 47% during that same time).

I have recently turned 20, being born in 2001 and have grown up with phones and the internet. I also have a diagnosis of BPD and depressive episodes and have been to both CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) and adult psych wards, and I wanted to share my experiences on how dangerous social media/the internet can be.

When I was at my most vulnerable, I set up an Instagram account to make light of my recently diagnosed personality disorder through memes and funny videos, sometimes with dark humor, although I was extremely careful to make sure I didn’t post anything that could be triggering. My account gained popularity very quickly and people related to my humor, and I got praise, with commenters saying they felt understood. However, being young I naively followed most of my followers back, as they seemed to have very similar accounts. That was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

I was 17, homeless after leaving foster care, and my BPD was destroying my life. Like I had said previously my bpd had only just been diagnosed and therefore I turned to Instagram and tik-tok for support and advice. I started finding other CAMHS patients who had similar accounts to mine and followed them thinking like me, people would be responsible to not post triggering content. I was so very wrong. I found there was a competitiveness around self-harm. The worse scars someone had the more ‘valid’ they seemed. If your scars were superficial, you were ‘attention seeking’ and not worthy of help. This was extremely triggering, and being young and extremely vulnerable, this led to my self-harming to become slowly but surely, more violent. A video on tik-tok explained how to use your BMI to calculate how much aspirin could kill you (in fairness, it was actually an informative video for medical students, but it was shared by a young person who captioned it with thanks for the advice), which I then used in a very serious attempt and thanks to a live-in support worker at a refuge I was living at, luckily, I am still here today. She was bank staff, and at first, she believed my alibi of having a migraine, but later, noticed I was losing the ability to hear. Straight away she pulled out her phone and called for help. If the normal staff had been on that night, I wouldn’t be so lucky. I arrived at A&E just as I slipped into unconsciousness. When I arrived back home a few days later she was still filling in for another staff member and I asked her how she knew, and she explained when she used to work at A&E she had come across aspirin poisoning before and knew tinnitus and hearing loss was a symptom.

More concerningly I came across a video of someone saying overdoses (which seems to be the most common suicide attempt in young people, and in adult females) ‘never actually worked’ and only used by “attention seeking pussies”. Ironically this was after I had unfollowed accounts I had found triggering and ensured that I had made sure all content I liked and interacted in was ‘pro recovery’ (it really pisses me off that this has to be a hashtag) and awareness accounts only, to prevent another ‘aspirin’ incident, but thanks to tik-tok’s for you page algorithm, dangerous accounts came up nearly every time I went on the app. This is when I decided to start researching ‘real’ suicide methods and by doing so each attempt became more and more violent. I had learnt how to ligature, thanks again to tik-tok. This led to my first psych ward stay. Honestly, I can hand on heart say this saved my life.

However, I turned 18 and got moved to adult services, and all hell broke loose (which is a story for another time). I ended up on the adult ward, first voluntarily, and then again on a section 2. During this time head banging started to become popular and a lot of young people posting under the ‘CAMHS’ hashtag had the big round scabs on their heads from doing it. Me being in a psych ward and in extreme crisis started doing it too, as it became the only method of self-harm available to me. Head banging seems to spread like wildfire on wards anyway, but I could not escape it whatsoever, even online it was right there. I gave myself a nasty concussion and ended up isolating myself even more than being on a section during covid had to be as I stopped video calling loved ones while in inpatient due to the mark on my head. I also stopped posting as I didn’t want my followers to do the same as me.  However, I did have black eyes that stayed for a long time, and a few videos of me with them ended up online, however a lot of young people asked where they were from and I decided to remove them as I didn’t want people knowing I had ligatured. I believe one video remains as it’s a BLM video and they are very faded.

Another time, when my self-harm was hidable from my viewers, I posted a video on tik-tok out of boredom and people noticed I was on the ward. Young people started bombarding me with questions, asking how I did it and any tips for them to get into one. I explained that while hospitals can be helpful, they are also extremely traumatic and should be last resort and that I had literally been stripped of all my rights. I got accused of ‘gatekeeping’. Around this time being in ward started to become a flex with the ‘psych ward check’ audio filling up my for you page. Young people started saying that they didn’t feel valid unless they got sectioned and stated in their posts, they were going to more extreme forms of suicide attempts in order to get onto wards. I found this alarming (especially as their end goal was to be hospitalized and they were doing things that could potentially end their life or risk serious disability) and did everything in my power to inform my followers that this really isn’t the case. The ‘need’ to be sectioned by young people got so bad one of my followers (who I also new in real life so knew a good deal about my experiences) used my story to pretend to be an ex patient on the CAMHS ward I had been on, finding young people on that ward through social media and messaging them, giving out information about my old CAMHS team and my mental health I had told them when they had lied and told me they saw the same mental health nurse. This sent me on a rage when I was made aware, and I told a youth worker who I worked with who in turn warned the ward. That point was one of the lowest points of my life and it hurt me to find out someone who I had thought had gone through a similar experience who I could empathize with was just using me to get intel on the ward for clout. This person blocked me when confronted and asked why they had done it, and although it hurt me, I hope they come to realize that their mental health was valid without having to pretend to be me.

This is my experience with social media and though it is blunt and very dark I am sharing it in hopes of spreading awareness, as this is still happening now. Luckily, I am healthier and cope a lot better than back then, but these videos are still there. They stay up because of code words, for example ‘barcoding’ instead of the word cutting (this is from jokes stating that people who self-harm look like bar codes and their wrists scan on the Tesco’s self service machines), putting ‘unlive’ instead of suicide, and ‘grippy sock vacation’ instead of psych ward  which ensures that there content misses automatic community standard checks. It has made me extremely mindful about what I put out there (this is probably the most detail I have gone into my mental health online and while my aim here is to be blunt and honest, I have taken as much care as I possibly can to ensure nothing is overly triggering or graphic. I hope by sharing my experiences that any young person in my shoes comes to realize from this that your struggles are extremely valid. Other young people online are not medical professionals and have no right to tell you how ‘ill’ or ‘severe’ you are. I also hope that any parents reading this have been made more aware of these dangers, and can support their children more if they find distressing content on this app. 

Also, I want to point out I am not demonizing every teen who posts videos or photos from inside wards, there are a lot of people like me who are just trying to fill the boredom, or people with self-harm scars that are old or covered, or injuries that simply cannot be hidden, these simply cannot be helped (the problem occurs in the small minority who purposefully draw attention to these injuries and tell people in detail how they got them). I am however asking the young people who post explicit videos of self-harm, body checks, suicide attempts in explicit details, and methods of hurting themselves online to reconsider before they post. Please, just stop trying to make mental illness a competition. Kids are literally dying because of it, either because they feel being put off help for ‘not being valid enough’ or, because it’s making their self-injury more violent, and those of us who came through the other side still kicking have permanently scared bodies and added trauma we didn’t need. There are a few young people who through ignorance don’t understand what they are doing is harmful, but a vast majority of these accounts know their posts are part of the problem. You guys know who you are. These accounts tend to have “block/scroll on, don’t report” on their bios or posts, which tells me that you are fully aware your content is harmful. I was lucky and I recovered. Another young person might copy you and not be so lucky. Please don’t be the reason someone managed to find a new way to hurt themselves. Please don’t end up with blood on your hands. It’s time we focus posting recovery and healthy coping skills with the same enthusiasm.   

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