On a recent afternoon in her office, Dr. Jessica Castonguay went on Twitter to demonstrate the ubiquity of social media hashtags that serve as code language for risky or harmful behaviors.
She searched under the hashtag #ana, which is used to signify anorexia. In a matter of seconds, she came across a skeletal-looking young woman who had posted several photos.
“If that girl walked into my office, I’d have a hard time sending her home,” said Dr. Castonguay, a physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital. “I’d want to hospitalize her.”
Secret and not-so-secret hashtags associated with disturbing behaviors are yet another aspect of social media that parents should be aware of, she said.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that the number of search results for hashtags related to self-harm on the social media site Instagram were large and growing.
The researchers from Seattle Children’s Hospital searched Instagram using the hashtag #selfharmmm. That lead them to identify 10 ambiguous, commonly used self-injury hashtags, such as #cat (cutting) and #selfinjuryy. (note: the duplicate letters in these examples are correct)
You can find a list of the top 10 hashtags with hidden meanings here.
Dr. Castonguay said you would be wise to stay on top of your children’s social media activity. It’s not out of line to spot check your child’s phone from time to time. And it’s good for your kids to know that you’re paying attention.
“As a parent of a 12 year old, I police my child’s Instagram all the time,” she said.
If you find your child has searched for or used such a hashtag on social media, don’t panic. Kids may want to explore out of curiosity. Ask your child about it, and seek to understand the context. Be direct, but not emotional.
Ask if your child has thoughts of hurting himself or herself.
“The most important part of the conversation is to not be accusatory, not be demeaning,” she said. “’I’m concerned about your safety. What does this mean?’”
As always, communication is the key.
“Know your kids. Talk to them. See what’s going on in their lives,” Dr. Castonguay said. “It’s all about setting up open lines of communications with kids and setting limits.”