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Self-harm posts are surging on Twitter, despite breaking content rules

Self-harm-related hashtags have increased roughly 500 percent since October, a new report says

A sign outside of Twitter's headquarters in downtown San Francisco in April 2022. (Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)
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A Twitter user in apparent distress turned to the social media platform earlier this month to mull their next steps: “might just let my Razors win tonight” the user said in a tweet that racked up 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 rise in recent months of tweets related to self-harm. In a new report, the researchers said they have detected a Twitter community that is increasingly posting graphic photos, with hashtags, that reveal bloody self-injury practices. The tweets are garnering unusually high engagement given the small number of followers of the accounts, the report found.

Among the disturbing statistics in the report is that since October, hashtags related to self-harm such as #shtwt,” which is short for “self-harm Twitter,” have increased roughly 500 percent, the report found.

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

“When you glorify cutting and poking and these forms of self-harm, you’d probably have the effect of sort of validating and affirming it. I suspect that is encouraging more of it,” said Lee Jussim, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who helped write the report. “It smells to me like social media contagion.”

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

“We are continuing to review our policies in conversation with external experts and research like this report to ensure we are striking a balance between giving a voice to people who are struggling, and removing content which exploits those struggles,” Alexander said.

The research illustrates how social media companies such as Twitter struggle to disrupt problematic content. Although the companies seek to encourage connections among users with like-minded interests, critics say they often fail to catch and address harmful content that can spread rapidly among clusters of users.

The users posting to Twitter commonly use acronyms and coded language to discuss their cutting techniques, the report said. In addition to “shtwt,” they will refer to superficial self-cuts as a “catscratch” because it often looks like cat scratches, or “beans” to refer to deeper cuts. The term “raspberry filling” 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” increased from 3,880 tweets in October 2o21 to close to 30,000 in July 2022, according to the report. Similarly, the number of mentions of “beanstwt,” which refers to extremely deep cutting, increased from fewer than 1,000 in October to over 4,500 tweets in August, the report said.

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

In one recent example, the report cites a tweet that said, “this is the deepest I’ve done someone be proud of me,” accompanied by an image of the wounds. That tweet, which garnered over 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’s rules, users are barred from promoting or encouraging suicide. Users can’t ask for encouragement to engage in self-harm or suicide, including seeking partners for such activities. Users are allowed, however, to share their personal stories or coping mechanisms to address self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

The 5Rights Foundation, a child advocacy group, submitted research to regulators in Britain that showed, among other findings, that Twitter users were sharing images and videos of cutting themselves, and telling others which razors they should use for self-harming and where to buy them, according to the Financial Times. In October, the company told the newspaper that it was blocking #shtwt, #ouchietwt and #sliceytweet from appearing in the company’s Trends feature.

Experts said young people are particularly vulnerable to the potential negative effects of self-harm content on Twitter. Jussim said the onset of cutting tends to happen in early and mid-adolescence and then slows down by early adulthood.

“A lot of what you see on Twitter is likely to be 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids looking for affirmation and meeting people like themselves,” Jussim said. “But it is possible and even likely that some of these people are predators trying to encourage these young teens to do more of this.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Craig Timberg contributed to this report.