Self-harm discussions and images on social media have been a recent focus of concern across academia, policy and the media. Cross-sectoral calls for online technology providers to enhance safeguarding have particularly emphasised the dangers of self-harm content; this has been framed as causing, encouraging or glorifying acts such as self-cutting and burning.
Drawing on a Wellcome Trust-funded online ethnographic study of self-harm discussions and imagery on Reddit, Twitter and Instagram (2018-2019), this presentation will offer a counter perspective.
Our research has demonstrated that young people accessing self-harm content are likely already to be self-harming; participants describe turning to social media to gain an understanding of their own self-harm, and to seek the support of others with similar experiences. Content that has been labelled in recent media discussions as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘graphic’ cannot easily be dislocated from this peer support; a young person may photograph, or even live stream, their self-harm as a way of asking for and receiving care from others.
These peer support mechanisms suggest that online self-harm content must be considered in context, with greater recognition needed of the complex multi-directionality to relationships between social media and mental health. In turn, they also highlight the necessity of interrogating the boundaries and meanings of ‘self-harm’ in a digital age. Self-harm is seen to emerge through social media as an assemblage of blade, skin and screen, with both the camera and the gaze of others becoming part of, rather than other to, the act.
Drawing thus, on recent work on materiality and embodiment, this paper will argue for the need to reconsider the relationship between self-harm and social media in ways that shift our understanding of self-harm both off- and online.
Dr Anna Lavis is a Lecturer in Medical Sociology at the University of Birmingham, UK. An anthropologist by background, her work focuses on lived experiences of mental ill-health and distress. Anna has led qualitative and mixed-method research studies on self-harm, psychosis, and eating disorders, funded by the NIHR; NSPCR, and the ESRC among others. Her recent work on self-harm and social media funded through the Wellcome Trust and her longstanding research into pro-anorexia websites both fed into the 2019 UK government’s All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry (APPG) into young people’s mental health and social media.
Anna is a guest lecturer in the Division of Psychiatry, UCL and has an honorary post in the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. There, with Karin Eli, she founded the ‘Body and Being Network’, a public engagement initiative that brings together social and medical scientists with artists to create performance events that explore health, illness and the body. Through this she is currently collaborating with a museum in the UK to create a participatory exhibition to enhance public understandings of self-harm.