Don’t make social media the enemy: the other issues behind the rise in self-harm

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The Children’s Society recently released a report which stated that 22% of teenage girls aged 14 have self- harmed within the past 12 months and 9% of boys have. That makes almost a quarter of teen girls, and a total of 110,000 young people across the UK who have self-harmed in the past year.

It’s very sobering to read. Unfortunately, it did not come as a surprise to me. Having worked with young people for the past six years or so, and spent time in schools I was acutely aware that self-harm was fast becoming one of the biggest problems facing young women. In fact, in 2015, The Girls Attitudes Survey, run by Girlguiding found that 75% of young women aged 11-21 listed self-harm as being a major issue facing their peers. It would appear that we didn’t do enough to address self-harm back then, and we still aren’t doing enough now.

But what is behind the increase? The conclusion most people jump to is that social media is to blame and is driving kids to despair, with concerns over body-image and cyberbullying becoming unbearable. But this is overly simplistic. Yes, there are definitely reasons to be concerned about the impact of social media on our young people, primarily because it hasn’t been around long enough for us to know what the long-term impact might be on mental health, but it is just one part of a much bigger picture that I fear we are missing.

What the Children’s Society report shows is that one of the highest risk factors for self-harm in teens is being attracted to the same or both genders, meaning that LGBT+ teens are at a much higher risk of self-harm that heterosexual children. Again, this is something that is sadly unsurprising to me. One of the most common issues I hear about from kids when I go into schools is homophobic bullying. We saw the horrendous impact that homophobic bullying can have this week when nine year old Jamel Myles took his own life after being bullied for coming out as gay in the fourth grade. Being an LGBT+ teen can be difficult anyway, even without the added stressor of bullying; not knowing who to tell, questioning your own sexuality, being afraid of judgement from friends, family and colleagues and feeling isolated from your peers are all issues these young people have to contend with.

The other risk factor for self-harm was coming from a low-income family. Austerity often bites families the hardest: cuts on youth centres, school meals, and welfare benefits all interrupt the daily functioning of a family, causing anxiety for both parents and children alike. A low-income family may also be more likely to live in a socially-deprived community, with higher crime rates and more likely to experience racism and other forms of discrimination. A child growing up in that kind of environment would unsurprisingly be more susceptible to poor mental health.  The Children’s Society doesn’t delve into this issue in great depth, but again, it highlights that something more than just pressure from social media is at work here.

What was very clear, was girls were more likely to report self-harming than boys were. Many of them mentioned that pressure around how they looked caused a lot of anxiety, and the frequency of hearing comments about other people’s bodies and sexuality affected how satisfied they felt with their own appearance. As with all reports and statistics, we know that there are certain limitations: we can’t be sure for example, that there is such a large difference in rates of self-harm between girls and boys, or if girls are just more willing to report self-harm than boys are. But the one thing we can be clear of is that The Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society does make it clear that we need to think beyond just social media when it comes to children’s mental health and start addressing some of these wider concerns.

Read the full report here: The Good Childhood Report