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When you think about your teen’s social media activity you may envision an exchange of silly emoticons amidst a slew of indecipherable text abbreviations. But what happens when teens are in an emotionally vulnerable place and they take it online?

Recently, I was perusing my own Facebook newsfeed and came across a disconcerting post from a family friend’s middle-school-aged daughter who lamented that she was “feeling depressed.” This post was accompanied by a sad-face emoji and a strewn of replies asking her for details.

This practice is not uncommon.

Turns out her dad was in the hospital. My friend’s pre-teen was scared and seeking comfort. She probably needed a hug. Instead her post elicited a bunch of emotionally shallow responses that probably did little to assuage her fears.

Online posts are not the only place where people turn to quell emotional angst.

Try conducting a simple search on Instagram using #SelfHarm or #Depressed. Brace yourself before viewing the results. Instagram even warns that the “images may contain graphic content” and prompts users to seek support for suicide or self-harm.

The hashtag search draws up images of open wounds on arm and legs. You can surmise that the cuts are from self-harm if you read the photo captions. Then there’s the outpouring of negative self-talk. A string of commentary follows.

The same kind of search can be done for #Bulimia, #Anorexia, or #Thinspiration where users struggling with their body image are on a quest for affirmation and a sense of community.

This dangerous online playground makes it easy for teens to critique the size of their thighs by posting a picture, and trade dangerous diet and exercise tips. Scores of images surface when you look for pictures with the #thighgap and #collarbones which are markers of a desirable figure for many who have unhealthy weight goals.

Thousands of users employ a hashtag to post images and status updates that are overt and public cries for help, although many will use a clever username to disguise their identity.

Mental health professionals have expressed concern that the ubiquity of such disturbing and emotionally-laden posts may provoke other users to follow suit as shared in a U.S. News & World Report article. Even if your teen isn’t posting the disturbing content, they can still be accessing it with a simple hashtag search.

Many researchers have found fascination with the topic and examined social media use to find clues into users’ mental health. Take, for example, Glen Coppersmith’s research quantifying mental health signals in Twitter.

Julia V.  Taylor, Ph.D. Candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision at Virginia Commonwealth University, has researched the topic and is concerned about the implications for educators, especially professionals like school counselors who work closely with teens.

“I find this topic compelling due to the complexities and sheer misunderstanding of the personal and cultural implications of these underground “support” communities,” Taylor said in a follow up interview.

“Teens are essentially reaching out for help, so as a school counselor, I want to know how we can offer them help in real time without the stigma and shame often associated with self-harm.  What’s missing is clear guidelines about how school counselors should handle these situations,” Taylor added.  “There is also a lack of training about what to do with situations that clearly impact school, yet happen outside of the school day.  As access to technology continues to increase, we are going to keep seeing these problems.  Proper prevention and intervention saves lives, and that is what we do.”

The Pew Research Center reports that Facebook and Instagram are the two most popular and widely used social media platforms among teens 13-17 years old. When teens need a place to turn, often they look to social media as their emotional outlet and sense of community.

Adolescence can present periods of emotional volatility. Developmentally this stage is characterized by a strong desire for belonging and acceptance among peers, however that important social connectivity is being substituted by digital transactions.

The hashtag has made it all too easy to find like-minded despondence, or like-minded anything for that matter. Like the old adage says, misery loves company and seeking it out online can be done with ease. Hashtagging is a lot easier than asking for help. A teens’ hashtag activity could provide valuable clues into what’s on their mind that they may not be ready to talk about with a parent.

“When teens use these sites to express their emotions, they allow teens to freely express themselves without a reduction of stigma, instant and anonymous connection, and support,” Taylor stated. “So, my question is how can we offer more of that?  Without the anonymity, of course.

Dr. Kate Roberts, a school psychologist, speaks to this very concern in an article “Face time vs. screen time: The technological impact on communication.” When people use social media to fulfill their social/emotional needs, their needs go unmet. Digital communication doesn’t provide the same level of emotional intimacy as face-to-face interaction. 

Relying on social media for emotional needs also doesn’t allow for a reliable feedback loop like you would get from face-to-face interactions.

In other words, if you are doing something that is turning people off because of your comments and posts, you aren’t likely to realize this in order to change the behavior.

In a quest to find emotional comfort, teens may find themselves further tormented as they sift through melancholic images and posts on social media.

Scrolling through the #SelfHarm and #Depressed posts, you’ll find “likes” which further reinforce the dangerous behavior of users, along with offerings of support with language like “I’m here for you” or “stay strong.” While this online trend may seem counterproductive, it can fulfill a temporary need for someone to feel that they aren’t alone.

The very want for belonging that is sought after online goes unmet due to limitations of social media. There’s the absence of body language that’s indicative of genuine care. The comfort of an embrace can’t be achieved. Tone is ambiguous.

As social beings, it’s in our nature to want to share and connect with others, but we must remind kids that social media simply doesn’t provide the same outcome.

Parents and educators both play a critical role in providing the safe place, in real time, where teens can go when they feel as though they are on shaky ground.

We need to make it okay for teens to talk about unpleasant feelings and to ask for help in real life rather than online.

Parent Tips

Use these questions to have a discussion with your teen about the limitations of social media.

-How does it feel to share your emotions with others privately and publicly?

-When you share something highly personal or emotional, how do you want others to respond?

-What is missing from the feedback when you share online compared to face-to-face communication?

-What do you experience when you see a negative comment or disturbing image that someone else posted on social media?

-What kinds of things make you feel worse when you are experiencing negative emotions?

-How do you react when someone likes a status where you shared highly personal or emotional information.

-If you are having a tough day, are you more likely to post about it or talk about it with someone you trust?

-What are some things you’d want to keep private from your peers at school?

Suggestions for Impacting Teen Usage of Social Media

-Model appropriate social media use

-Enforce a “digital sunset” every evening in your household or limit how much time can be spent on social media

-Keep tabs on what your teen is “following” on social media sites this could provide insight into some influences you would otherwise not know about.

-Ensure you have all social media account information (usernames & passwords)

-Follow and/or friend your teen on social media

-Discuss positive and negative coping strategies


  1. I love the combination of useful information and practical tips on how I can approach the teens in my life with useful questions.

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