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Youth self-harm provoked by social media but rarely studied

Online competition can cause harmful behaviours, one psychotherapist says as data show up to 20 percent of teens in Finland intentionally harm themselves..

Tyttö istuu nurkassa ja on peittänyt kasvonsa käsiinsä.
As many as one fifth of teens in Finland self-harm. Image: Lovisa Viinikka / Yle

Between 11-20 percent of teens in Finland harm themselves intentionally, according to various domestic studies as well as data from the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

Exact figures are unavailable, however, as research on youth self-harm is scarce in Finland. The only focused study on the issue from 2009 puts the figure at 11.5 percent, as does more generalised subsequent research.

Meanwhile THL survey data indicate that "one in five" teens cut or otherwise harm themselves without suicidal intent.

THL also reports that while girls cut themselves more often than boys, teen male suicides occur more often.

On Friday psychotherapist Katja Myllyvirta told Yle that young people tend not to disclose their patterns of self-harm for fear of shame or reprisal.

"It appears that deliberate self-harm has increased in the past decade, especially among young girls. Some elementary school children even maintain self-harm chat groups," Myllyvirta said.

Many young people cut or otherwise wound themselves as a kind of experiment, Myllyvirta said, but for others hurting themselves is related to processing difficult emotions or psychological distress.

"Young people [I've talked to] say that cutting themselves resets their feelings in a sense. When they feel really bad, self-harming can calm some teens down and help them sleep."

The suicide rate of young adults has declined slightly over the past decade. In 2017 some 107 people under the age of 25 committed suicide. Before a couple of years ago, Finland's overall suicide rate has been steadily dropping since the early 1990s.

Vicious social media cycle

Myllyvirta said it is clear that the problem of self-harm among youths is exacerbated by social media environments.

While sometimes online platforms may offer support and relief, she said, a young person may also be conditioned to compete with their peers.

"Young people who self-harm often have aesthetic conceptions of what beautiful scars look like," said Myllyvirta. "All forms of comparison strengthen competition, which reinforces behaviour. Some teens share blog posts of their wounds."

While sharing such content is not a new phenomenon, online media such as Instagram are responding to a rise in self-harm imagery.

Instagram announced in early February it would remove pictures and videos depicting self-harm, after the father of a young woman who committed suicide blamed the company for being involved in his daughter's death.

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