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Is social media normalising self harm?

More often than not, self-harm is an issue that affects adolescent girls. The common perception is that boys don’t engage in such practices. Yet a concerning trend is beginning to emerge. No longer can self-harm be considered an issue that is exclusive to females. Far from it, in fact.

This is the main finding following a major report from the World Health Organisation, the stark results published in recent days.

The latest research has discovered that the number of boys self-harming has increased by almost half since 2014. This is a finding that the Royal College of Psychiatrists has described as ‘deeply concerning.’

In such an appraisal, we couldn’t agree more – although the conclusions that have been drawn come as no great surprise here. 

The evidence on the ground has long suggested that more and more boys are using self-harm as a coping mechanism for issues including mental health problems, exam stress, body image and cyberbullying. Social media, the report’s British-based authors have concluded, is playing a major role in ‘normalising’ the practice. Once again, we must concur.

So to the numbers: 

    • almost one in six (16%) 15-year-old boys surveyed said they had self-harmed (this representing a significant increase, up from 11% in 2014); 
    • girls are still much likelier to self-harm than boys, but it’s notable that the proportion has increased at a slower rate (rising from 32% to 35%); 
    • boys are reporting emotional difficulties more, with those ‘feeling low’ at least once a week having almost doubled to 31%; 
    • overall (boys and girls), more than one-third (38%) reported ‘feeling low’ at least once a week – the highest proportion since 2006.

The date of 2006 is significant, as it was then, most agree, that social media use started to spike, with the smartphone boom beginning in earnest.

Could this be a coincidence? The evidence suggests not. 

Another report has found that children are being given phones at an earlier age – seven-years-old, it seems, is the new normal. The likelihood is that such issues are about to further intensify.

This research, conducted by Childwise, has discovered that 57% of children sleep with a phone at their bedside; 44% report feeling ‘uncomfortable’ if they’re ever without a signal; 42% ‘always’ have their phone with them – never switched off.

By the age of 11, Childwise report, ownership is ‘universal’. The report’s author, Simon Leggett, says smartphones can ‘dominate children’s lives’ and again, we’re in agreement.

So what can be done to combat such things? In reality, it’s rather simple. Boundaries are so important, perhaps never more so than now. Set rules and stick to them. Easier said than done, perhaps. But this is one fight that’s worth having – because backing down can have dire consequences for all involved.

Those consequences? Self-harm – or worse, for we cannot overlook the case of Molly Russell (who committed suicide, aged 14, in 2017), which continues to rumble, with Ian, her father, backing the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ call for action to protect the vulnerable from harmful online content. 

“We found typical things (on Molly’s social media accounts) that you would expect of a 14-year-old: school friends, pop groups and celebrities,” he wrote recently. “But we were also shocked to discover bleak, depressive material, graphic self-harm content and suicide-encouraging memes. Content that surely has no place on platforms used by the young and vulnerable. I’m in no doubt that this harmful social media content played a role in taking Molly away from us. My question is, why is it allowed to be there – even now, two years after my daughter died?’

It’s a good question and one that, unfortunately, we’re unable to answer. But one thing in all this is quite clear: problems persist, risks remain, and issues are intensifying. For boys and girls alike, this couldn’t be more concerning.

Concerned about self-harm? Got a question or need someone to talk to? You can always contact CPUK here. 


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