‘The glamorising and approval of teen girl audiences of the captioned desire to depart from life is surely one of the most dangerous digital conversations unfolding today’
These postings provide a snapshot of the Instagram dialogue trending amongst Australian adolescent girls. It is a virtual battleground of life and death on the popular image-sharing platform, as girls bombard one another’s feeds with image representations explicitly captioned with suicidal yearnings.
Suicide-themed captions crafted by girls are attracting hundreds of teen and tween girls. However there are almost no responses encouraging the distressed and possibly at-risk girl to call ‘000’, a kids’ help hotline or even asking ‘RUOK?’
Instead, adoring fans applaud with ‘likes’, approving comments and a shower of emoticon hearts before following suit and posting their own suicide-inspired image and caption.
As director of a company, Inspire Creative Arts, working to strengthen positive social media engagement among young people, I am given an insight into the online life of young girls. From cyberbullying to drunken evenings, sex, gossip, body shaming, the ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspo’ re-posts, and semi-naked images: I thought I’d scrolled through it all. That was until I stumbled across Instagram’s suicide genre.
Instagram has become the diary of choice as a girl publicly pens her relationship breakdowns, friendship backstabs, family angst, bikini ‘body goals’, and the whimsical longings for physical touch and affection. All this, accompanying filtered images of an ocean, flowers, a sunset, a social gathering, her bedroom, laying on her bed, kneeling on her bed, an upper-body selfie with clothes intact or clothes removed, zoomed in on her lips, shoulders, side cleavage, abdominal definition, upper thighs.
But this public broadcast of death-pondering takes young people’s social media usage to a whole new level. The glamorising and approval of teen girl audiences of the desire to depart from life is surely one of the most dangerous digital conversations unfolding today.
Where did girls learn the idea that offering to cut one another is a demonstration of friendship and loyalty?
A distressed girl’s image can attract the attention of thousands, yet her virtual cry for help is not met with real assistance. It is a sinister paradox that begs us to ask: is the past stigma associated with youth suicide under reconstruction?
Of course we welcome real and honest conversation about the subject, made possible thanks to the work of mental health services leading the way including RUOK campaign, Kids Helpline , Headspace and ReachOut.
However this particular Insta-fad; this troubling collective of emoticon guns, knives and bombs, of applauding girls for the most insightful suicidal thought, and the aspirational connotations of being a suicidal teen, mirrors a detrimental trend.
It is a trend that normalises suicidal ideations as fashionable, deceiving girls as they embark on their rollercoaster quest for belonging, that presenting oneself as suicidal is hot, desirable, and an image deserving of approval.
In a 2014 report by the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, ‘Help-seeking Behaviour and Adolescent Self-harm’, it was found that only about 50 per cent of youth aged 11-19 sought help when engaging in suicide ideation or thought. Of this figure, it was the ‘informal support systems’, friends and family, who were most commonly accessed for assistance.
But what happens when an online platform becomes a dominant informal system of self-disclosure and, due to the contagion effect of admiration and copycat behaviour, this system keeps those in need trapped in a cycle of posting harm-themed messages and receiving approval for doing so?
Furthermore – what happens when the dialogue throughout this support system, Instagram, transforms a young person’s belief of suicide ideation from being an issue that requires help, to being a normal and trendy thought-pattern?
Suicide is now the biggest killer of young women worldwide according to the World Health Organisation. In Australia, hospital admissions of women aged 15-24 who have self-harmed have increased by 50 per cent in the last 10-15 years.
In the latest report by the Australian Government’s Department of Health, it was reported that 1 in 4 girls aged between 16 and 17 have deliberately injured themselves, with 1 in 5 meeting the diagnostic criteria for a depressive disorder.
It is encouraging to those of us working with young people to see a broader societal discussion of this tragedy at last taking place out in the open. Of course the factors leading to suicidal thoughts and the act itself are complex and multi-layered. And of course I’m not laying all the blame on a social media platform. However if we are going to understand the social/psycho influences and drivers, we need to start including these Instagram postings in the discussion. And perhaps it is time for the platforms themselves to question their own social responsibility in hosting and even enabling the spread of suicidal thinking and contagion among those most vulnerable.
If you need help please contact:
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 65 94 67
Also by Jemma Nicholl: