This post discusses eating disorders, self-injury, and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
A lot of my friends joke about being addicted to Tumblr, a popular microblogging site. It’s easy to see why: unlike most other social networks, Tumblr allows you to subscribe only to content that interests you (that is, you’re less obligated to automatically follow all of your friends) and, what’s more, to do so anonymously.
However, the aspects of Tumblr that make it so desirable as a platform for self-expression also make it potentially dangerous, especially for lonely young people who are struggling with self-destructive coping mechanisms. Teenagers especially are drawn to the “Tumblr universe” because it allows them to communicate their troubled feelings without revealing them to their “real life” friends and acquaintances, and it creates an online subculture of acceptance and apparent understanding that can be hard to find in the real world.
In this way, unhappy people begin to establish a sense of identity based on their unhappiness itself. They present their virtual selves by “reblogging” the hundreds of stark images and desperate text posts that are circulating within the site. It’s a cycle that can become obsessive, especially for individuals who struggle with issues like eating disorders, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts. While the desire to surround oneself with content reflecting one’s internal state makes sense, in this case it ultimately reinforces the messages of worthlessness and despair that created that internal state in the first place.
While social media can allow an individual who feels lost to carve out a fragile sense of self (albeit a dangerously unhealthy one), it simultaneously invalidates that self-image by comparing the user to thousands of others. Tumblr makes it acceptable to define yourself by your problems, but it also makes it all too easy to measure those problems against other people’s. This can lead to a whole slew of issues; people who are wrestling with self-destructive impulses begin to believe that because the visible manifestations of their struggle are less severe, the struggle itself must be less valid. For example, an individual with an eating disorder may compare herself to the images of emaciated bodies featured under the “thinspo” tag and come to the conclusion that she is not yet deserving of help, or a person who harms himself may mistakenly believe that the deeper physical wounds of strangers on the Internet are reflective of a greater degree of emotional suffering. It can become an incredibly sad cycle of perceived inadequacy—of people hating themselves for not being able to hate themselves enough to be really sick. And, as fellow Culture Shock staff writer Kate Conroy testifies in this beautifully brave piece, these constant comparisons can lead to a sense of competition, which can cause destructive behavior to escalate.
A lot of people would argue that the ability to tag the content in question with a “trigger warning” allows users to avoid stumbling across problematic material—there are ways to blacklist certain tags, ensuring that they won’t pop up on your dashboard unexpectedly. However, the tagging mechanism can backfire in that it also makes it easy to seek out the dark, desperate messages that perpetuate the cycle of self-hatred and harmful coping mechanisms. People who aren’t actively trying to recover aren’t going to blacklist triggering content; if anything, they’ll seek it out. Even for those who are in recovery, it’s incredibly easy to accidentally get sucked into the dangerous territory of romanticized hopelessness—one little click will send you into an endless stream of freshly-cut flesh, frighteningly prominent bones, and heartbreaking confessions of loneliness and fear. It’s a world that is as intriguing as it is terrifying, and for someone who is struggling to break free from it, unexpected exposure can have devastating consequences. It should be noted that Tumblr itself has made an effort—a pop-up message that appears on certain tag pages with a link to “counseling and prevention resources”—to reach out to users who are wrestling with mental health issues, but while well-intended, it’s ultimately a very weak measure.
I don’t know what the answer is here. I’m all for free expression, and I wouldn’t know where to draw the line defining what should be considered dangerous. But I do believe that posting graphic or otherwise triggering content is irresponsible. So for those struggling with any of the above issues: your experience is valid, and I am in no way dismissing you. But please consider the serious possibility that what you perceive as an expression of your own pain could very well be endangering someone else.