Self Harm Social Media and Social Contagion

Parent Alert – What do smart phones have to do with self-harm? An epidemic among our middle school students – YES!!!!

We all know that the Internet has dramatically changed the lives of humans all over the world. While majority of it is positive, the dark sides of it walk into our therapy offices all day long. I write this article as an appeal to parents of 5th through 11th grade students. PLEASE, please, please think twice before you give your “child” free access to a playground that has no monitors.

As a Psychologist who has been treating teens here in San Diego for almost 30 years, I am blown away by the hoards of teens who are self harming in the last 1 to 2 years.

Cutting is a behavior that traditionally has had roots in trauma, mood instability and often girls or boys who are not able to “find” feelings or name “feelings.” As mental health providers, our work tends to be in the arena of working through the traumatic events, finding ways to cope with the emotional rollercoaster that can be present with the teen brain and identifying feelings and learning how to cope with negative emotional states.

How does one connect smart phones to cutting and self-harm?  Celebrities use social media to spread the virus through sites such as Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. When we have Demi Lavato, Myle Cyrus, Brittney Spears, Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga openly talking about their “recovery” from self-harm, girls who worship them begin to see this as normal behavior. Some of these celebrities are well intentioned, in that they are trying to prevent other girls from going to these behaviors.

This mimicry is called social contagion. In very simple words – contamination! The epidemic of self-harm is completely being transmitted virally via social media and the Internet. There are hundreds of blogs in the Internet that glorify self-harm. Middle school girls feel an enhanced sense of belongingness when they are part of “the” club that cutsL Other blogs glamorize the “thigh gap” and yet others glamorize anorexia and bulimia.

To understand social contagion, we have to understand some brain science. We are all born with mirror neurons, which give us empathy and connection. These mirror neurons are responsible for the “copying” behaviors that we all do. Most teens will say they do not want to be like everyone else, yet they are constantly trying to fit in, and be in a group. Teen angst is all about finding your self, and looking for people to emulate and inspire you. The teen brain is under construction and will not be fully developed till age 25. When Demi Lavato who is so strong, powerful, vibrant and rocks the preteen and teen world speaks, they ALL listen.

If someone has the flu and you are nursing them, chances are you may develop the symptoms in a few days since you got exposed to the virus. The PROXIMITY put you at risk for the flu. Social media “contaminates” millions of girls and boys across the globe. Cutting is a maladaptive behavior, and this social acceptance makes it an adaptive, socially accepted, even approved behavior.

The most protective factor a parents can create is to not have your child/teen have a smart phone till they are 17 or older, keep the computer and ipads out in the open in the family, have discussions about which social media their kids are on, and who do they follow? If the bird flu were going around what protective factors would you create around your teen? Be a parent please?

Posted on 6/23/2014