How can we make Instagram a safe place for our children

Instagram, self-harming, and suicide: how can you protect your children?

I’ve been reflecting on the story of how looking at images of self-harm and suicidal imagery led to the suicide of a young girl.

Yesterday there was an unprecedented apology from Facebook (the owners of Instagram) and an assurance that steps had (and are) being taken to remove this type of imagery from Instagram.

A report by The Children’s Society indicates that almost quarter of 14-year-old girls in the UK are ‘self-harming’.

I looked on Instagram today, under the hashtag #selfharm. I was horrified by what I found, I’m sure you would be too but it will give you a realistic view of what is available for your children to see.

Pages upon pages of young people showing cuts on their arms. Images and cartoons of people attempting suicide. Shocked doesn’t quite cover the rising emotion, together with sadness that young girls (and boys) have free and easy access to this content at a time in their lives where it’s hard to be a young person.  Our next generation, who are at a critical stage of their development emotionally and physically, can so easily be influenced by these traumatic images.

Why am I writing this?

There are two reasons. 

Firstly, I write as a therapist and wellbeing practitioner and someone who understands the impact of traumatic imagery on the brain. The damage caused, especially so on younger minds, in such a highly suggestible stage of emotional and physical development, is enormous.

Let me explain. This imagery sticks in the mind. At night when the sub-conscious processes all this imagery and the other events of the day, these pictures are passed through thousands of synapses as the brain tries to make sense of everything. The subconscious does not distinguish between the real and the unreal. It just processes everything. And it is then that these traumatic images can do the most damage, when they are played time and time again into the sub-conscious. Because the sub-conscious will, eventually, normalise this imagery.  And once this imagery becomes normalised, that is when the sub-conscious brain may start sending signals to the conscious brain that it is okay to self-harm (and worse).

Obviously, that’s greatly simplifying the neurological process… but, in short, that is how the brain works. 

Some of my therapy involves working with clients to reduce and erase the impact of bad images caused by severe trauma. And the way in which this is done is to reverse the encoding process in order to remove the emotional attachment and visuals of the image.

The free access which is granted to teenagers and young children to Instagram and other social platforms can lead to severe trauma from some of this imagery and content. I cannot over-state the impact on these young minds enough, and the potential mental health issues they may trigger. 

Secondly, I speak as a parent.

I know it’s hard as a mum, dad, step-mum, step-dad, or carer when every other young person seems to be allowed unfettered access to every social platform and every app imaginable. The cries of “all my friends are doing it/have it” ring around pretty much every home in the country.

Our 12 year old isn’t allowed access to social media. And the reason is because of what I do for a living and because I can see the damage which is being done to young minds.

I completely accept that many parents have little idea of the damage being caused so let me provide a metaphor. Let’s say there was a park at the end of your road in which you allow your 14 year old to go and play unaccompanied. That’s fine. However, if you discovered that next to that park there was a wasteland covered in asbestos, would you let them in the park unaccompanied? With Instagram it is the same thing. It can be a nice positive platform full of positive imagery, stuff which can help children understand and appreciate the world for all its beauty and positivity. But there is a much darker side which your children and grand-children have access to. And that darker side is full of toxic material which WILL damage your child’s brain.

It may seem draconian but until Instagram and other platforms provide some level of protection to young people, and prevent horrific imagery being freely available to impressionable young minds, as a parent I feel it is my job to provide protection.

I always try and bring balance to everything I say and do, the advice I give clients is always pragmatic but balanced. On this issue I see no shades of grey, and I make no apology.

To my mind this is black and white. Until Facebook brings in better controls which will protect the next generation my advice to parents is this: for the good of their mental health keep your children away from Instagram. Or at the very least, closely monitor what they are looking at. 

Not everyone spends their life studying and understanding the brain as I do, and how it is impacted by the world around us, but that is why I have written this blog. To try and help parents and grand-parents better understand the sheer power of, and damage caused by, the toxic imagery to which teenagers and young children have access.

I do understand that this is a very difficult subject, but I also believe it’s important to meet that challenge head on. As parents, and therapists, this is too important to ignore. The mental health of an entire generation is at stake and I think it’s time to turn the tide and for us to take responsibility for the health of our children and grand-children.

If you have any queries on this blog or need further help or advice you can contact me via my website.

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