Dr. Megan Moreno found that teens posting about self-harm, which includes behavior such as intentional cuts or burns on the wrists, arms, legs or belly, were able to outmaneuver Instagram warning labels.

Teens on social media post about their comings and goings—pictures, videos, music and news. But according to a new study from Seattle Children’s Research Institute, some teens are using stealthy hashtags and secret languages on Instagram, a popular picture-sharing app, to create online self-harm communities and trends that encourage dangerous behavior. By doing so, they circumvent Instagram safeguards for self-harm and other dangerous material.

The new research illustrates what content is present on Instagram and details how parents or concerned adults can decipher the meaning of unclear terms they see on their teens’ profiles.

Dr. Megan Moreno, an adolescent medicine physician who studies social media and adolescent health at the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, found that teens posting about self-harm, which includes behavior such as intentional cuts or burns on the wrists, arms, legs or belly, were able to outmaneuver Instagram warning labels. Despite the social media app’s attempts to discourage the posts by providing warnings and blocking certain hashtags, adolescent users continued the conversations by developing new hashtags.

“We found that only one third of self-harm hashtags on Instagram generated warning labels,” Moreno said. “Adolescents’ use of unusual terms, such as ‘blithe’ and odd spellings such as ‘self-harmmm,’ allowed them to subvert detection and warning labels.”

Subverting content warning systems

Hashtags are words or phrases without spaces between them that are preceded by a ‘#’ and are used on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Hashtags allow content to be linked to larger online communities who also use the hashtag.

Moreno cites ‘#self-harmmm’ as an example of a hashtag that users developed to trick the content advisory warning system and elude blocked hashtags. Initially, the hashtag #selfharm was used to build an Instagram community dedicated to self-harm. After the hashtag was reported to Instagram, the site blocked users from searching for content linked to it. The revised hashtag #selfharmm then emerged and was used in this same community. The second hashtag was blocked, so the hashtag #selfharmmm emerged.

Moreno says that while social media websites can and should develop better safeguards to keep teen users safe from self-harm posts and images.

Moreno says that while social media websites can and should develop better safeguards to keep teen users safe from self-harm posts and images, young people who use these hashtags may need help from parents, medical professionals and teachers.

Among the 18 total hashtags Moreno and her group studied, only six generated warning labels on Instagram and redirected users to another site.

Moreno also examined a hashtag and image called ‘#MySecretFamily’ that compiled into one post a series of hashtags about mental health issues or self-harm. Mental health conditions or self-harm practices were assigned human names, and users were directed to use the hashtags in posts. For example, girls and boys with depression were instructed to use the hashtags ‘#Deb’ or ‘#Dan’ in posts, suicidal youth were instructed to use ‘#Sue’ or ‘#Dallas’ and users interested in self-harm were instructed to use ‘#Cat’ or ‘#Sam’.

Moreno found that the number of search results for self-harm hashtags on Instagram was high, and use of the terms grew over time. For example, the hashtag ‘#self-harmmm’ grew from 1.7 million search results in 2014 to over 2.4 million in 2015.

Tips for keeping at-risk youth safe on social media

Moreno says that while social media websites can and should develop better safeguards to keep teen users safe from self-harm posts and images, young people who use these hashtags may need help from parents, medical professionals and teachers. She offers the following advice for families:

  • Recognize that adolescents throughout history have used slang, unusual terms and “secret languages” to communicate with each other, particularly about topics that are stigmatizing such as self-harm. What is different now is that this communication often occurs online, and parents should feel empowered to use online resources to decipher this secret language.
  • Talk with your teen about what they know and what they think about self-harm. Many teens have seen references or pictures about self-harm online and may want a safe place to discuss feelings or questions.
  • If you are concerned that your child is engaging with self-harm, talk with them using language that is open and nonjudgmental. Let them know your concerns, and talk about ways you want to help, such as having a visit to your pediatrician’s office.

“These hashtags and online behaviors can be a riddle to parents and educators who might see them and not know what they mean,” Moreno said. “Your teenager’s social media use should be an ongoing topic of conversation at home. Regular check-ins about your teen’s online experiences provide the opportunity to both celebrate the great decisions and behaviors they engage in and also to discuss concerns and worrisome experiences.”

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