We have been alerted by a number of concerned members from our safer schools community about a surge in young people using technology to help manage self-harm behaviours.
This follows reports in the press of a rise in children and young people resorting to self-harm behaviours as a response to difficult emotions and experiences during the pandemic.
We know from emerging research that self-harm referrals and presentation at A&E departments can temporarily drop (by around 40%) during lockdowns before returning to typical levels. This does not mean the practice itself stops, but that it slips under the radar meaning more children and young people may be coping without the support they need and deserve.
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is fundamentally an attempt to cope with and control intense, difficult, and distressing feelings or thought patterns.
It includes any activity that intentionally injures the body such as cutting, burning, picking, high risk sexual or drug use behaviours and excessive exercise or eating restrictions.
Self-harm can be a distressing topic for parents, carers and safeguarding professionals to think about, but it is worth being clear that self-harm behaviours are less about ‘seeking attention’ and more of a signal ‘cry for help’.
Most self-harm will happen in secret and usually comes with feelings of guilt and shame.
Motivations are complex but young people report feeling a release or punishing themselves.
This release is only temporary and when difficult feelings appear again, so too can the urge to engage in self-harm behaviours. This can cause a difficult cycle of high-risk behaviours to manage feelings.
What is Peer Support
Peer support is when young people living with a mental health condition or other complex needs and difficulties support each other with advice, empathy and a listening ear. It can be a vital lifeline for many young people and can help them build independence, resilience and healthier coping mechanisms.
Young people may use message boards, habit tracking apps and social media to share information about their mental health. The increase in this use of technology for peer support is an indicator of how the pandemic has impacted traditional support services which have been restricted for many young people.
We want to make sure that safeguarding professionals and parents are aware of the different types of support young people may seek out within digital spaces. Where young people are unable to speak about issues in their lives, peer support may be their only way to cope.
Can peer support make things worse?
While there may be real benefits in peer support from sharing coping skills, resilience tips and distraction techniques for a young person, our research indicates that there may be some negative factors.
Analysts found posts where young people were clearly struggling with their mental health and speaking about distressing thoughts.
These posts were met with encouraging statements and motivational quotes but the volume of posts from young people could easily be overwhelming.
These interactions may create a feeling of solidarity and validation but it could in fact be triggering for a young person, whereby they compare their progress or emotional state to others.
In some cases, young people may also share methods or tools for self-harm behaviours.
Young people may also be left feeling vulnerable and exposed after sharing intensely personal feelings and thoughts.
They may also develop unhealthy habits of ruminating on difficult feelings or experiences which may be counterproductive in their attempts to cope and seek support.
The importance of appropriate supports
We understand the value of peer support and where appropriate, this should be encouraged alongside existing professional mental health support for children and young people.
There may be additional complexities where a child or young person who has sought support in online spaces does not get a response or receives negative feedback, which might discourage them from seeking further help. It is important to recognise that there is no way to establish the quality of information or advice they receive.
If you are aware of young people using technology to share or cope with difficult feelings or circumstances it is helpful to discuss the value it has for them and what other supports they can use alongside it.
You should make sure young people know about moderated peer support forums like the Childline website, where they can interact with their peers safely. Childline will contact a young person if they are particularly vulnerable or in need of immediate medical attention. They will also make sure the quality of the information is beneficial to children and likely to make things better.
Practical Tips for Parents and Safeguarding Professionals
If a child or young person is using technology to cope with how they are feeling, this should not be discouraged. However, ensuring they are using the right technology should be. Check that they are using a trusted site to interact with other young people safely.
If a young person is seeking help online they should be encouraged to take regular breaks and be supported in understanding how ruminating or being overexposed to negative posts may not be helpful.
Check that the young people in your care are able to name the trusted adults in their lives – who they would speak to if they needed support.
If a young person has existing mental health support, they should be encouraged to disclose the use of technology as a coping mechanism for self-harm behaviours – this should also be factored into any risk assessment and support plan.
Young people should be reminded about the confidential Childline website and the services they provide which are: internet chat, email, phone or message boards.
The text and responses in these examples have been taken directly from the source but anonymised to protect the identity of the individual.
Sadly I didn’t get any plants
Fun fact I’m feeling extremley suicidal <3
~ Young Non-Binary Individual
Fun fact.. Actually really sad fact. But on a serious note if you want to talk please reach out to someone. I can give you my Snapchat or any other social media. We’re all here to support each other, you are not alone. You got this my friend 🙂 <3
~ Young Female (replying)
I made it to day 6, I’m still having thoughts about doing it and it would be so easy just to go into the kitchen to get a knife but I hope everyone else is ok.
~ Young Non-Binary Individual
You can do this!
~ Unknown (replying)
today was so so tuff. my moms card got declined today and she checked her bank account and she has no money in her account 🙁 i feel really guilty cuz she just spent a lot of money on me for some new clothes. i felt like her live would be so much easier if i were dead. that’s been on my mond a lot. everyone’s life would be easier.
~ Young Female
No it wouldn’t! You’re life is important and matters ❤️ please don’t do it 🙁 and it’s not you’re fault when you mother had not so much money there will be better times and if you’d die or something your mom would be so sad and her life would be even harder please stay