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Social media doesn’t make teenagers self-harm, neoliberalism does

Throughout school surveillance, measurement and competition have been ingrained into the psyche of this generation, alongside the idea that anyone can produce an interesting ‘show and tell’ and sell ‘brand me’ if they try hard enough

Jay Watts
Friday 09 December 2016 15:17 GMT
Newspaper headlines blame the 24/7 nature of social media for causing teenagers distress
Newspaper headlines blame the 24/7 nature of social media for causing teenagers distress (Getty)

Social media is being blamed today for the huge increases in the number of teenagers who are self-harming. Is social media really responsible? Can it really explain the sudden leap in child self-harm hospital admissions in just two years?

Almost 19,000 teenagers were admitted to hospital for self-harm in 2015/16, a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has revealed, up 14 per cent since 2013/4. Self-harm is when you hurt yourself, normally your body, when feelings, memories or body tensions become too much. This “tearing the body apart” is a way to attack oneself, to try to gain some agency over unbearable pain, and to communicate. Why is self-harm in teenagers on the rise?

Our pain and agency is deeply indexed to the messages we receive about what is and is not acceptable. From birth, we are surrounded by ideals of successful personhood and the good life which we internalise, and compare ourselves against. Our self-respect is thus indexed to how we are seen from outside. Whilst newspaper headlines blame the 24/7 nature of social media for the cult of competitiveness causing distress in this cohort, social media is but a symptom of the root cause.

This generation of teenagers were born in the Blairite era, when a certain type of ideology, neoliberalism, came to dominate. Neoliberalism locates competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. People are consumers, needing to compete successfully in the market from an ever earlier age, or fail. Today’s teenagers were the first to be educated using 2000’s controversial “Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage” (CGFS). This nappy curriculum for 3 to 5-year-olds meant kids had to follow teacher-led pedagogy rather than learning through play and exploration. Surveillance, measurement and competition were thus ingrained into the psyche of this generation from the age of three, alongside the idea that anyone can produce an interesting “show and tell”, and sell “brand me” if they try hard enough.

Neoliberalism has not been without side effects, not least the elite’s politically expedient new ability to locate emotional distress as an individual problem in self-esteem or mental health problems. The atomisation inherent to neoliberalism means that we lack ways of conceptualising how sociopolitical distress manifests in our bodies. This makes it easy to attribute the rise in self-harm to something external – in this case, the technological revolution – rather than something we are all involved in producing.

Whilst social media later provides an especially noxious mirror back to our successes and failures, it is but a conduit of the values of any particular time. Technology is inherently value neutral until we pick it up and use it in particular ways. As well as attempting to stop pain, self-harm can be read as an attempt to symbolise something, to demarcate inside and outside, to communicate.

Social media is actively used as a forum through which people who self-harm can connect with one another, to reclaim the experience and scars as meaningful and powerful, to find allies who will hear of the distress, hopelessness and traumas self-harming contain. Rather than blame social media for today’s figures, we must encourage youngsters to have a relationship to social media such that it is not a constant pressure to be “on”, to sell an impossible image, but as a potential source of creating new ways to be human, and to live a good, connected life.

This is already happening if we attend to the voices of survivors of self-harm who are using social media to create new, more bearable realities. We can read here of a reclaiming of body tension and anger, not as something to feel guilty about, to attack the body for, but to respond to politically. Lack of opportunity, poverty, noxious welfare reforms and sexual violence all impact on teenagers daily reality. Situating self-harm as evidence of “emerging personality disorder” leads teenagers to feel misunderstood and pathologised, rather than individuals in acute distress trying desperately to cope through at least having a powerful relationship to their own bodies.

We must also not allow Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to get away with attributing the current child mental health crisis to social media, allowing the shaping effects of successive government policies to remain invisible. We must recognise that the current political and mental health crises, the fallout from neoliberalism, are inextricably linked. We must start teaching our children that something different is possible, and learn from the creative, political, collective solutions they are creating here and now on social media.

Dr Jay Watts is a clinicial psychologist and an honorary senior research fellow at the British Psychological Society

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