Tumblr blogs can glorify depression and self-harm

By Zoe Duncan-Doroff, St. Mary's Academy, Portland, Ore.

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Tumblr has over 140 million blogs. Most revolve around predictable topics, such as photography, music, fashion, sports and design. But this popular social space has expanded in surprising and sometimes unhealthy ways.

Tumblr thrives on the emotional, diary-like output from a younger demographic, proving a space where teens can post, share, opine, vent and dwell on their interests—including unhealthy ones. Over the past couple years, self-hate blogs have flourished. According to the research team at SimilarWeb, which studied 1.6 million Tumblr blogs, about 200,000 blogs contained self-harm tags. Many of these post include black and white photographs of mystical and dramatically skinny or scarred girls overlayed with quotes like, “I don’t know if I’m getting better or used to the pain” and “I want to die a lovely death.”

“When you look at secular trends and epidemiological research completed over the last several decades, there seems to be a slow and fairly consistent increase in levels of depression of each succeeding generation of teenagers,” says Dr. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Reinekce speculates that this is because the online cultivation of “beautiful sadness” is easy to join. “Anyone can take a picture, turn it black and white, pair it with a quote about misunderstood turmoil, and automatically be gratified with compassion and pity,” he says.

Depression has always been a stigmatic topic. However, Stan Kutcher, an adolescent psychiatry expert, notes that “the pendulum, has swung from ‘let’s never talk about it and let’s never educate ourselves about it’ to ‘let’s everyone blab about it.”

The term “depression” even appears to be overused. “When we use the word ‘depression’ for every negative emotional state, the word loses its meaning,” Kutcher says of the recent tendency to over-discuss and over-diagnose this condition. This creates a trend of girls becoming “wannabe” depressed. They post images and quotes associated with torment, even though they are not clinically depressed. “You see kids self-identifying as having that depression, but they don’t have a depression. They’re upset, they’re demoralized, or they’re distressed by something,” says Kutcher.

Teens who confuse depression with everyday challenges are drawn to Tumblr’s online hub of self-harm because of the horribly poetic combination of pain and beauty that is advertised. In an interview with The Atlantic, Laura U, a 16-year-old at an international school in Paris, said she believes that Tumblr is the chosen media for this wildfire-like trend because it is “a very easy place for people to feed off of this kind of frenzy because of their ‘reblogging’ system, [which makes] it very easy to [spread] pictures and gifs.” She also theorizes in that the exhibitionism of self-harm, suicide, depression, or self-loathing is considered “beautiful, romantic and deep.”

Teenagers seek the satisfaction of being different. Yet they also yearn to be part of a community. Being part of something dark, beautiful and misunderstood makes it all the more appealing. And these Tumblr communities seem to provide the perfect solution for the fragile mind. But to be accepted, teens have to advertise their suffering — they have to prove they belong.

Sophie Moser, a sophomore at SMA, expresses frustration over this trend. She feels that the wannabes “are dramatizing the illness itself; they are also isolating the people with the illness by posting revolting pictures.”

And in fact, many teenage girls do suffer from legitimate conditions. In the U.S., 20 percent of women have suffered from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives, and between 2008 and 2010, 12 percent of teenage girls 12 to 17 suffered from a major depressive episode, according to a 2012 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Reinecke comments that you can sometimes get a “reverberating echo chamber,” of girls who are feeding off each other’s self-destructive emotions, increasing the effect of the web-wide negative feelings.

You never know who you are affecting, what lives you are changing. With that in mind, post consciously and reblog cautiously.”

— Sophie Moser, St. Mary's Academy sophomore

Moser says, “Girls and boys are trapped in society’s bubble their whole life, so they go on the internet to let out everything that they would be judged for in daily life.”

Junior Isabella Langhus believes that “hurting yourself should never be a form of self-expression or art.” Yet, she says she sees many self-hatred posts with thousands of reblogs. One that stuck with her was a girl bleeding in a bathtub, with ‘perfect’ carved into her arm.

“We do know that exposure to the kind of content that glorifies dangerous behaviors…is a real problem,” explains Susie Roman, National Eating Disorders Association’s Director of Programs.

“It is not healthy, or fair to people actually going through things, to post pictures like that,” says Langhus.

The problem is that the teenagers most at risk are those turning to a site like Tumblr in the first place. “Social media sites can further entrench the disorder with those who are viewing the images and message, and it can also delay or prevent them from seeking help or entering recovery programs,” worries Roman.

For Kutcher, the solution lies in recreating the distinction between normal emotional states and the clinical condition of depression. Perez agrees that the way to go about this is education.

At a time where social media, bullying, depression and suicide are at all-time highs, this topic is highly relevant, especially at SMA, where a majority of the population frequent Tumblr and many girls already deal with diagnosed depression. While there can be beauty in suffering and pictures can convey immense emotion, if art and pain become imbalanced, it can be detrimental.

Moser says “You never know who you are affecting, what lives you are changing. With that in mind, post consciously and reblog cautiously.”

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