Self-Harm Blogs: Encouraging or Destructive?

With an overwhelming amount of media, it is no surprise that young people who have grown up with this rising technology that is infusing them with information here and there, may be more susceptible to the effects of technology, especially to the effects of social media.

Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post discusses the impact of self-harm blogs on teenage girls in her article “Self-harm blogs pose problems and opportunities.” She pinpoints that these blogs “shelter in a dark, desperate corner of the Internet” where people who participate in them meet the “first community of friends” they have ever had by posting about self-harm behaviors such as cutting, suicide, or eating disorders. Because of the community that is built surrounding self-harm, members of the community start to see self-harm as normal, which is actually incredibly dangerous. Dewey notes that “because teenagers’ social judgment lags behind that of adults, they can be swayed by the material they see online and easily convinced of its accuracy.”

These young people are tied together and form bonds through an array of social media. They can post inspiration, desperation, and meet and connect with others who are like them on a sort of deep emotional bond that only they can truly grasp and understand.

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 5.38.32 PMExample of a post that is reblogged on a self-harm blog on Tumblr.

Oddly, it seems that having a community of depressed people who feel bad about themselves and talk about it makes these people feel less lonely. Does this exemplify the benefits of online social networking, or is this something that we should worry about?

Nancy Baym states that “we build self-representation by linking to others” (Baym, 111). The social ties that these self-harm bloggers form have helped them to build their self-representation, encouraging them to participate more. They are able to have an identity through the connections they build with others like them. Michael Wesch touches on this in his video, “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube,” saying he doesn’t just think of media as content or tools of communication, but as mediating human relationships. When it comes to self-harm blogs, the bloggers get to know themselves and establish their own identity through their relationships with other bloggers. These blogs are more than their content in that they mediate the relationships between those who participate with this media. As people begin to identify themselves through their relationships with others like them, the blogs end up “convincing them that cutting or eating disorders are normal, or even healthy” (Dewey). These blogs are giving them assurance that what they are doing is normal, even though it is negative and destructive.

The manner in which young self-harm bloggers utilize social media says a lot about their social ties. Dewey describes how using social media as a way to share one’s feelings about something like depression makes them feel like they can open up without being judged. While they cannot share it with the people they interact with such as friends or family, they can connect with strangers on the Internet. In “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects,” Caroline Haythornthwaite discusses the impact of the Internet on the strong and weak ties one may have with people on and offline. “Online friends also include more socializing and emotional support in their communications,” strengthening the ties one has with others (Haythornthwaite 135). Many of those who participate in self-harm social media outlets have trauma within their physical environment that have led them to rely on the Internet and online friends for emotional support. Ironically, these outcasts are able to find an online community, allowing them to develop strong social ties.

In her article, Dewey introduces both the problems as well as the solutions of self-harm blogs. While we can’t reduce the amount of social media that young people absorb and partake in, it is important to get them to “harness the benefits of social media but not the harms.” I think Dewey did well in being open-minded about how we can try to help teens use social media in a positive way. Her article is presented in a way in which she pinpoints the problems, why they are problems, examples of self-harm users, and examples of how social media can be used to connect these people in positive and safe ways.

She references the actions of NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, which launched its own personal social network, Proud2BMe, that “invites people suffering from eating disorders to share their stories in a more regulated environment. The organization has lobbied many sites, including Tumblr and Facebook, to enforce self-harm policies.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 7.47.35 PM

Screenshot of the Proud2BMe homepage

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 5.35.49 PM

Tumblr notes the prevalence of self-harm blogs on their site and opposes them.

However, I do feel that Dewey’s article focuses more on social ties and how self-presentation is built through social ties, rather than how self-presentation is built from within an individual. Dewey could have mentioned the role of disembodiment, described by Don Slater in “Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline,” that comes into play online. Especially when it comes to self-harm, the idea that these bloggers become “separate from their physical presence” is key in that it separates them from their real life they loathe into a supportive online community (Slater 536). She could have delved further into how the key features of disembodiment, textuality and anonymity, play a role in how bloggers describe themselves and their actions, and end up formulating a better version of themselves. They get to have an out-of-body experience, running further and further away from who they are that makes them feel ashamed.

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