Self-harming and social media: advice for parents



Around 1 in 12 children in the UK self-harm deliberately, and there’s been a big rise in the issue for girls in particular*. Self-harm can be caused by underlying mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, but it’s also common in young people with no history of mental health problems. Whatever the trigger, there are ways to deal with self-harm and to help your child if they’re affected.   

Why do young people self-harm?

Self-harm is often a response to feeling emotionally distressed and is seen as a coping mechanism to deal with a variety of scenarios. Reasons often include:

  • High levels of stress, often during exam time

  • Extreme emotional upset or pain

  • Feelings of anger and/or frustration

  • Attempts to regain a sense of control over problems

  • A cry for help, or to receive attention from others

  • Attempts to identify with a peer group

As self-harming can be a sign of an underlying mental health issue, it’s important to understand the causes and respond with the right kind of support. If not dealt with, self-harm can become a habit and in the most extreme cases, it can lead to a suicide attempt.

What are the signs of self-harming?

  • Low mood, lack of interest in life, signs of depression or outbursts of anger

  • Unexplained cuts, burns, bite marks, bruises or bald patches

  • Wanting to keep themselves covered up

  • Bloody tissues in waste bins

Does social media contribute to self-harm?

There’s an increasing amount of online content that celebrates destructive behaviours such as eating disorders, self-harm, or even suicide. It is often found on social media sites and can include graphic videos or images of people using scalpels or other tools to cut the skin on their arms and legs, scratching or burning themselves. Some of this content can also promote anorexia.

Social media is not a direct cause of self-harm, but if your child is emotionally distressed or vulnerable to harm, this type of content may influence their behaviour and make the situation worse.

Steps to take if your child is self-harming or looking at harmful content

It can be devastating to discover your child has been self-harming or looking at content that celebrates this type of behaviour. But it’s important to remember that the way you talk to your child can make all the difference in how they respond. Here are some things to bear in mind:

1. Keep calm - while you may feel guilty, helpless or angry, take some time to settle your emotions. The calmer you are, the easier it will be to talk openly and honestly with your child and uncover the reasons for their behaviour.

2. Don’t immediately assume the worst - ask your child why they are looking at this type of content. It might not always be as bad as you think - they could be seeking support for their issues through forums and online discussion groups, and this might be helping them feel less isolated.

3. Avoid confiscating their device - you might be tempted to take their devices away or cut access to their accounts, but children often feel lost without their smartphone. Depriving them of technology might actually make them less likely to talk to you about their problems.

4. Try to identify the triggers - encourage your child to open up about why they are self-harming and try to find out what was happening when they first started. Is there something that’s making them feel really stressed? Do they have any frightening thoughts that are difficult to talk about?

5. Deal with the stress - seeing as stress is one of the biggest causes of self-harm, encouraging your child to do simple tasks that reduce stress may help. Some examples include talking to someone, meditation, getting regular exercise or listening to music. 

Seeking professional help

If you are seriously concerned for your child’s physical or mental health, it is always best to seek professional help. There is lots of free, expert advice available:

  • Your doctor will be able to advise whether your child can be referred to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).


[*] Brooks, F. et al. (2015) HBSC England National Report 2014. University of Hertfordshire; Hatfield, UK. NHS reports a 68% rise in rates of self-harm among girls aged 13 to 16 since 2011.


This article is by Parent Zone, the experts in digital life.