We think of Instagram as inherently aspirational, filled with ideas on how to live your best life. But the platform has also become a place to find inspiration of a different sort, the kind that makes mental health experts and Silicon Valley uncomfortable, to say the least.
Scouring for graphic self-injury photos is disturbingly easy on Instagram. Using ever-changing variants of words like #selfharm or #cutting, anyone can find a world that seemingly normalizes self-harm. And while Tumblr and Twitter also contain self-injury photos, a new study that looks at photos tagged with #cutting on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr found that the same app known for gratuitous selfies and #spon posts also hosted the greatest number of self-harm images.
Instagram is in a bind, experts say, because self-harm communities can’t be counted on to police their behaviors and banning words or phrases is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. “If one hashtag is no longer allowed as a searchable term, they’ll just misspell the word with extra letters or misspellings,” says Jonathan Comer, professor of Psychology at Florida International University, the study’s lead researcher.
Along with others, Comer is pushing for organizations to use the same hashtags as those who are self-injuring to provide resources to the afflicted. “One of our findings was how extraordinarily rare it is for posts to include any kind of recovery resources,” he said. “That’s certainly an area where we need to improve things.”