Petition for self-harm search terms to offer alternatives
The freedom and vastness of the Internet provides a place for users all over the world to form communities surrounding their interests and opinions — and while it would be ideal for those communities to always be forces of good, realistically, the web also offers a space to propagate more problematic attitudes and habits. In particular, the popularity of self-harm websites has become an alarming trend which has spread through word of mouth and social media both
Pro-self mutilation and pro-ana websites encourage self-harm and anorexia respectively, and they often contain discussion boards where users can provide tips for each other about strategies for self-harm or avoiding eating. Not only do these sites encourage people to develop new injurious habits, but they also cause desensitization to problematic attitudes through overexposure.
“It’s frustrating to see people suffer when there’s so many great resources to help them,” Cassie Walters said. Walters is a co-author of a new petition that could change how people get information about mental health issues, sponsored by Ithaca College’s chapter of Active Minds.
The petition asks Google to direct users to free counseling and prevention online resources when they search for terms like “self-injury,” “pro-ana” and “how to tie a noose.” A window will appear urging visitors who are struggling with self-harm issues, eating disorders, or suicidal thoughts to click “tell me more” to be redirected to helpful information, but they can also dismiss the message.
Search engines already provide the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline upon searching “suicide,” but the Active Minds petition would expand on this goal of getting help for those seeking it. “It’s just making you stop for a second…if you don’t need the help, you just click a button and you can still get to your results. But if you are thinking of harming yourself, it can give you that opportunity to think twice,” Walters said.
One of the petition’s goals is to discourage those suffering from mental health issues from visiting sites that could provoke dangerous decisions. Cyndy Scheibe, professor of psychology and media literacy at Ithaca College, sees pro-self harm and pro-ana communities as problematic. “They tend to focus on two things: hints and then this reward-punishment thing…giving you props for eating very very little and losing weight and punishments for anytime you did eat something or, in this case, didn’t cut. I can’t see any benefit in that.”
Pro-self harm websites are attractive to cutters because they often feel misunderstood or judged for their actions by people offline. An online community of people engaging in the same behaviors is an outlet for expression. Unfortunately, it’s a dangerous one. “Any time you’ve got a secret behavior, then the Web is a wonderful place where you can go and nobody knows who you are, and you can be secretive but still tell other people what you’re doing,” Scheibe said.
In order to combat the pull towards online communities that are detrimental to recovery efforts, Active Minds aims to promote positive spaces online. “Instead of fueling your disorder or habit, we can help you get better [by directing you to helpful resources]. It’s a different sense of community, a greater sense of community, a more positive sense of community,” Walters said. The petition doesn’t aim to remove pro-self harm and pro-ana sites from the Internet, but rather advocates for more optimistic sources of support. Jim Root, director of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, emphasized that solving underlying mental health concerns is more valuable and effective than censorship. “It’s important that we take a long, honest look at why people are hurting themselves, rather than trying to bind their hands and lock away knives. The only way to eliminate things like this is to eliminate the desire, otherwise our creative minds will just find more creative ways to do it,” he said.
Scheibe agreed that education needs to be a higher priority in mental health promotion. She advocates having safe places for teens, either face-to-face or online, that are monitored by professionals. Peer educators who have recovered from mental illnesses can help the issue of feeling misunderstood and self-help groups can provide an accepting environment that is more healing-based than the pro-harm online communities. Even movies or reality shows that portray the harmful effects of cutting and eating disorders in a compelling way could reduce rates of self-injury. “Steer people to better alternatives, and let’s start teaching people about all of this,” Scheibe said.
Many of those suffering from depression, eating disorders, and other issues don’t seek help because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Google could provide more visibility for mental health resources to endorse the idea that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength. As Root said, “There are better solutions, better ways, and better days. We can help you find them.”
Sabina Leybold is a a freshman speech-language pathology major. Email her at sleybold1[at]ithaca.edu.