New report says self-harm posts are increasing on Twitter



An apparently distressed Twitter user took to the social media platform earlier this month to consider his next steps: “I might just let my razors win tonight,” the user said in a Tweet that has accumulated more than 1,500 likes, 20 comments and 25o retweets.

The post was an example of what researchers from the Network Contagion Research Institute and Rutgers University say is a dramatic increase in self-harm-related tweets in recent months. In a new report, researchers said they detected a Twitter community that is increasingly posting graphic photos, complete with hashtags, that reveal gory practices of self-harm. The tweets are seeing unusually high engagement given the accounts’ small number of followers, according to the report.

Among the disturbing statistics in the report is the fact that since October, hashtags related to self-harm such as #shtwt”, which is short for “Twitter self-harm”, have increased by around 500%, according to the report.

At least some of the content also appears to flout Twitter’s longstanding rules against glorifying suicide and self-harm despite warnings from activists months ago that such tweets were growing on the site, according to the report.

“When you glorify cuts and beatings and these forms of self-harm, you probably have the effect of validating and affirming them. I suspect that encourages more,” said Lee Jussim, professor of psychology at the University. Rutgers who helped write the report. “It smacks of social media contagion to me.”

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Twitter spokeswoman Lauren Alexander said in a statement that the company takes self-harm content very seriously and will work to create a safer internet.

“We continue to review our policies in conversation with outside experts and research like this report to make sure we strike a balance between giving voice to those struggling and removing content that exploits those struggles,” Alexander said.

The research illustrates how social media companies such as Twitter struggle to disrupt problematic content. As social media companies seek to encourage connections between like-minded users, critics say they often fail to detect and address harmful content that can spread quickly among groups of users.

Users who post on Twitter commonly use acronyms and coded language to discuss their cutting techniques, according to the report. In addition to “shtwt”, they will refer to superficial self-cuts as “cat scratches” because it often looks like cat scratches or “beans” to refer to deeper cuts. The term “raspberry filler” refers to blood, while “moots” is a reference to “mutually engaging in self-harm,” according to the report.

The number of users with #shtwt in their bios has doubled since October 2021. Meanwhile, monthly mentions of “shtwt” rose from 3,880 tweets in October 2o21 to nearly 30,000 in July 2022, according to the report. Similarly, the number of mentions of beastwt, which refers to an extremely deep cut, rose from less than 1,000 in October to more than 4,500 tweets in August, according to the report.

The researchers said this type of jargon and insider language can foster a sense of community in which people who feel distressed end up encouraging each other to increase the depth or severity of their self-inflicted wounds.

In a recent example, the report cites a Tweet that read “this is the deepest thing I’ve done to make someone proud of me,” along with an image of the injuries. The tweet, which garnered more than 2,000 likes and 165 retweets, elicited responses such as “that’s so pretty” or “how beautiful,” according to the report.

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Under Twitter rules, users are prohibited from promoting or encouraging suicide. Users may not seek encouragement to self-injure or commit suicide, including seeking partners for such activities. Users are, however, allowed to share their personal stories or coping mechanisms for dealing with self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Children’s advocacy group 5Rights Foundation submitted research to UK regulators which showed, among other findings, that Twitter users were sharing images and videos of cutting themselves and telling others which razors they should use to self-harm and where to buy them, according to the Financial Times. Last October, the company told the newspaper that it was blocking #shtwt, #ouchietwt’ and ‘#sliceytweet’ from appearing in future app trends.

Experts have said young people are particularly vulnerable to the potential harmful effects of self-harming content on Twitter. Jussim said the onset of female circumcision tends to occur in early to mid-adolescence, then slows in early adulthood.

“A lot of what you see on Twitter is likely to be 13, 14, 15 year olds looking for affirmation and meeting people like them,” Jussim said. “But it’s possible and even likely that some of these people are predatory trying to encourage these young teenagers to do more of that.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Craig Timberg contributed to this report.


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