The Secret Language of Social Media: How Teens Hide Harmful Behaviors

In today’s digital world, kids and teens often sort out their identities online. And some social media platforms have a darker side—often hidden from parents’ view.

Two recent studies examined these risks. One found YouTube videos in favor of eating disorders, while another identified secret hashtags teens use to chat about cutting and other self-harm behaviors. The findings make it clear: Young people need supervision in the wired world just as much as they do offline.

How Harmful Behaviors Go Viral

In some ways, behaviors can spread the way germs do. Viewing harmful pictures can trigger teens prone to hurt themselves to do so. And so-called “thinspiration”—photos of extremely thin bodies—makes eating disorders seem normal. Social media creates a community of support around a certain behavior, such as cutting, or bingeing and purging.

Recent research focuses largely on teens—though any child old enough to use social media faces a risk. And it affects nearly every platform. These include Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Snapchat.

Young people hide these messages from older eyes by:

  • Using creative hashtags. These searchable words or phrases—preceded by the # sign—allow users to easily link and search posts.

  • Creating more than one account. Some sites, such as Instagram, allow usernames instead of real names. Teens might create one account they show parents and another for friends.

What Parents Can Do

Just because adolescents can type, text, and click faster than you doesn’t mean you can’t teach them how to act responsibly. Parents can do a lot to identify problematic online behaviors, provided they get tech-savvy enough to do so. To start:

  •  Sign up yourself. You can’t begin to know how troublesome behaviors ripple through social media without your own profile. Create one on every site your child uses—and make a family rule to connect with each other.

  • Learn the lingo. Site rules force users’ hashtags to be more creative. For instance, Instagram banned #selfharm and then #selfharmm, so those talking about cutting now use #selfharmmm. Check the list below for some red-flag words and phrases. Share intel with other parents who have teens of similar ages.

  • Suggest positive options. In addition to pro-anorexia videos, researchers found some videos that support recovery from eating disorders. Positive sites—such as—have branched out into social media,


Watch for these vague hashtags, linked to the following communities:

  • Self-harm: #blithe, #cat, #selfinjuryy, #selfharmmm, #secretsociety123

  • Pro-eating disorders: #thinspo, #proana

  • Substance use: #legalizeit, #bupe



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