Inside The Secret World Of Teen Suicide Hashtags
BuzzFeed - Latest 2014-09-07
Young people will always find ways to talk about depression, self-harm, and internal pain. Right now these conversations are happening with hashtags on the internet.
Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed
"It's gonna be you + me."
In the photo I'm looking at on Instagram, those are the words literally carved into what appears to be either someone's forearm or the underside of their thigh. The wound looks fresh, with drops of blood dripping down from different letters; it's surrounded by older wounds and cuts that have already started to heal.
"'Our song forever on my skin," the caption reads. "Thanks for all the pain. For all the tears I've cried and all the cuts I've made. I love you."
I found this photo by searching a secret hashtag, one of several that teens use every day to share controversial images on social networks like Instagram and Tumblr without getting caught. In a world where these companies actively police hashtags like #cutting and #proana to crack down on inappropriate content, young people are trying — and mostly succeeding — to fly under the radar by creating codewords like #sue and #secretsociety123 to discreetly form communities organized around self-harm, and they're showing up in strong numbers. An Instagram search for the #sue hashtag, a secret word for suicide, reveals nearly 800,000 tagged posts. The vast majority of these posts all contain evidence of cutting, quotes about depression, and messages related to self-harm.
"People who are posting on Facebook or in forums just kind of need to get that information out of themselves and put it somewhere," said Nicola Survanshi, director of programs and operations at the nonprofit organization ReachOut, which helps teens and young adults achieve mental health and wellness through technology. "That alone can be really helpful and cathartic."
While there are a fair share of positive messages within the stream of #sue and #secretsociety123 posts on Instagram and Tumblr, they're outnumbered by darker posts about self-harm. Some of them overlap with the traditional hashtags; for example, a photo with the hashtag #sue can also be tagged #deb, #ana, and #anorexia.
Of course, the #sue hashtag doesn't just display posts promoting self-harm. There are also posts on Instagram and Tumblr with positive messages and quotes about optimism, like "Don't give up now" and "Stay strong." It's clear that there's a contingent of young adults who try to flood the hashtag with positive and inspirational messages, hoping that others teens using the hashtag earnestly will take some positivity from it.
Over the course of a couple months, I reached out to almost 50 teens on all different kinds of social media — including Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter — as well as via email. I asked if any of them would be interested in talking to me anonymously about how young people are using social media and the internet to discuss mental health, depression, and content around self-harm. I didn't receive a reply from any of them. It seems extremely clear that hashtags like #sue and #secretsociety123 are meant to be just that: secret societies unto themselves where outsiders are not welcome.
In April 2012, Instagram banned the pro-eating disorder hashtag #thinspo after it started getting noticed on a number of sites and garnered more attention. The site responded by updating its community guidelines with one specific policy, "Don't promote or glorify self-harm." It reads:
"While Instagram is a place where people can share their lives with others through photographs and videos, any account found encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or to cut, harm themselves, or commit suicide will result in a disabled account without warning. We believe that communication regarding these behaviors in order to create awareness, come together for support and to facilitate recovery is important, but that Instagram is not the place for active promotion or glorification of self-harm."
When I asked representatives at Instagram if they were aware of the hashtag, they sent me a link to the guidelines posted on the website. But Instagram clearly is aware that #sue exists because when you search for the hashtag on the site, a content advisory message pops up: "These images m