Teens in danger of self-harm find help in a surprising place: Instagram
Social media outlets can often feel like the Wild West, particularly if you are a parent trying to raise a mentally healthy tween or teen. While you can't always monitor which underwear-wearing celebs they'll encounter on any given day on Instagram, a new Instagram tool is doing its part to make it a little easier to help out young people who may be contemplating self-harm.
Teens often use SM like Instagram as personal diaries where they share their innermost thoughts, fears, desires and insecurities about their bodies. Let's say a young woman or man posts what his or her followers consider a cry for help. There are two ways Instagram tools are here to help. First, the buddy system: A person who follows anyone posting messages that suggest she or he is thinking about suicide, self-mutilation or eating disorders can anonymously report that person. The friend will receive a message that says, "Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we'd like to help." The message will also offer a helpline that can be instantly accessed where the user can confide in a trained professional.
The second Instagram tool prevents users from using hash tags that suggest self-harm. If a young woman (or man) posts a photo of a thin celebrity and attempts to tag it "#thinso" (short for thin inspiration), that user will be directed toward that same message offering help.
We have to commend Instagram for teaming up with groups like the National Eating Disorders Association and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as for working with Seventeen magazine to launch a campaign called #PerfectlyMe that focuses on IG users who promote healthy body image. As parents, we can't always be on top of our children, especially when they reach an age when they crave more independence. At the same time, many are too young to understand the influence that Instagram images and messages can have in promoting negative self-thoughts.
While I'm not entirely confident that a child's peer is going to serve as a reliable source who can distinguish between a friend's emotional declaration and a post that can actually indicate self-harm, these tools are a step in the right direction. As a young woman who suffered from an eating disorder, part of me always wished my diary would be found and that someone would try to prove to me that my screwed-up mind was worth saving. I never went as far as publicizing my private thoughts and have always suspected that those who do via social media truly are crying out for help.
If social media can, in some small way, replace the village we so desperately need and lack these days to help us raise healthy children, then maybe Instagram is leading the way.