child psychotherapist JULIE LYNN-EVANS:Teens tormented by social mediaFebruary 22, 2019
Every day I see young patients left in torment by images on social media, says leading child psychotherapist JULIE LYNN-EVANS
Child psychologist Julie Lynn-Evans at home in west London
Twenty years ago, a case of self-harm in a teenager was so rare that I’d be ringing to arrange an emergency hospital appointment even before the consultation came to an end.
Now, after three decades as a psychotherapist specialising in children and adolescents, I see such cases several times a day. So I’m not remotely surprised by figures showing hospital admissions for teenage self-harm have more than doubled over the last six years.
Indeed, as someone who regularly fails to find an available hospital bed for one of my wretchedly unhappy young clients, I wouldn’t be surprised if the figures are actually understating the scale of the problem.
Based on my own experience, this explosion in the incidence of teenage self-harming over the last decade coincides exactly with the inexorable rise in the use of social media, particularly by anxious teenage girls desperate to measure up to their peers.
Hijacked by the internet and the images of both physical perfection and self-harm they have access to – and with no time to process their emotions in a healthy manner – they resort to the razor blade.
Take the 16-year-old girl I saw recently after a near-fatal dose of sleeping pills. Her poor body was a mass of self-harming scars, and her attempt at taking her own life was a serious one.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that she was an enthusiastic consumer of the awful self-harming images so easily found on Instagram, and that she also blogged about self-harm herself.
Then there was another 17-year-old client – a lovely girl at a smart Home Counties school, with straight As at GCSE and a brilliant sportswoman, too. She seemed to have everything, but every time she dropped a mark at school or lost a game of tennis she would retire to her bedroom, remove the blade from a pencil sharpener, top up her supplies of wet wipes and antiseptic and methodically cut her inner thighs.
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It was a ritual for her. Afterwards, she would almost proudly share the highly disturbing images of the end results with a group of similarly-inclined online ‘friends’.
In my experience, the sort of self-harming we’re talking about – where social media plays such an important and damaging role – is an almost exclusively female phenomenon.
There are boys who self-harm but they are far rarer and with a different set of mental health problems, normally related to OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).
What parents and teachers need to know is that this female version is highly infectious, with girls egging each other on (both online and face-to-face) and enthusing over the short-lived high they experience after cutting, as ‘feelgood’ endorphin hormones kick in to cope with the pain.
Teachers – already overworked, I know – need to be better trained to look for the signs of self-harming, just as they are with eating disorders.
But parents have to take a more active, and potentially more difficult role, too.
Why is your 15-year-old daughter reluctant to wear a bikini on holiday? Why does she suddenly want to wear a long-sleeved top to play tennis?
They will also need to know far more about their daughter’s life online. What platforms does she use? What sites does she visit? Is it possible she has accounts you know nothing about?
Raising a teenage girl has never been easy but, for any responsible parent worried about their daughter’s long-term mental health, it’s about to get a whole lot harder.
(Stock photo) Julie Lynn Evans is the author of What About The Children? The book focuses on how to help children through their parents’ divorce or separation
The Government and health authorities must up their games. If social media platforms can’t monitor and control the distressing images that can so easily be found, then the Government must do that for them. But it won’t be easy. A basic Google search can unearth desperate images, often from highly respectable media sites.
As for the NHS, it must acknowledge the scale of the problem and ensure an increase in the pitiful number of hospital beds currently available for teenagers with serious mental health problems.
Then a coherent clinical care pathway must be put in place that ensures these unhappy, potentially suicidal girls aren’t just passed from one mental health team to the next but have someone – maybe their GP, maybe a psychologist specialising in teenage mental health – taking overall responsibility for their care and ensuring they receive the best possible treatment.
Only then will we begin to make any sort of significant inroads into the horrifying epidemic of teenage self-harm.
Julie Lynn Evans is the author of What About The Children?
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