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Since the 2010 launching of the mobile app, Instagram, users share pictures and videos with their peers like never before. While this social media app provides a fun and convenient way to show off family photos and adorable pets, it can also be a source of worry for parents. Do you worry about who is viewing their child’s photos and what they are posting? If so, you’ll be happy to learn about the possible dangers of hashtags.

What are hashtags?

Hashtags are “#” symbols in front of words or short phrases that drop them into a posting page with the same tag. Sorting content this way allows others to see your picture and any other pictures that use the same hashtag if your social media profile is not set on private. Click on a hashtag phrase like “#Monday”, you would be directed to a page of #Monday photo collections from all Instagram photos tagged with #Monday from various user profiles.

Hashtags seem harmless, should I worry?

Most hashtags are used for fun and harmless sharing (#MomGoals, #GKIS). However, as with any social media trend, teens often use this tool to find and contribute to pages with explicit material. One way to hide this activity from parents is to use vague or shortcut terms.

An unfortunate example of this secret language is for pictures depicting images of self-harm (#cutting) and eating disorders (#mia, #ana). While some profiles provide helpful information to help empower those in distress, others overtly encourage self-destructive behaviors. These online communities are commonly known to share detailed techniques and strategies, provide emotional support, and serve as a launch pad for online friendships. In my clinical practice, these relationships often spiral into emotionally dependent and frequently abusively manipulative pairings that remain hidden and are resistant to protective parent intervention.

Hashtags are used on most social media sites, including Instagram, Twitter, and Tumbler (Whitlock, 2009 & Nock, 2010, as cited in Moreno, 2015). Although many kids go looking for these forums after they’ve already experimented with concerning behaviors, others get started this way (Seko, 2011, as cited in Moreno, 2015).

Until social media sites improve the strength of their content advisory, parents must keep their children safe from viewing explicit content.

Instagram now has a content advisory that pops up and warns users of content that might be graphic and even provides resources for help with eating disorders and links to helplines. However, just as kids are great at creating sharable online resources, they are also great at staying hidden from parental interference. For example, in a 2015 study that identified similar hashtag meanings on multiple social media sites, vague and hard to identify hashtags including “#mysecretfamily”, “#blithe”, “#Bella” or “#Ben” (a term used for Borderline Personality Disorder), “#Ana” or “#Rex” (used to reference Anorexia), and “#Sue” or “#Dallas” (terms for suicide) (Moreno, 2015). Only a portion of these hashtag terms generated a content advisory warning.

GKIS TIPS for protecting your children from viewing destructive online content:

  • Check out social media site help centers for information. For example, Instagram’s help center provides downloadable privacy and safety guides for parents, teens, and gives information and resources for addressing abuse and eating disorders. 
  • Make sure that your child’s social media profiles are set on private.
  • Have open conversations about what your children view and post online. Remind them that they can talk to you if they do accidently view images, post, or receive something that makes them uncomfortable. No blame, no shame.

By opening up nonjudgmental conversations about what your child may view on social media and mental health issues, you model healthy communication skills, promote stigma free views on mental health, and most importantly, develop a positive and loving relationship between you and your child. If you feel they are too young for these discussions, then they’re too young for social media.

Parenting can be incredibly difficult at times. Parenting a teen struggling with painful psychological issues is particularly scary. In situations like these, many aren’t sure where to turn or what to do. As a psychologist and a mom, I want to remind you that you are not alone. Whether your concerns are about Internet safety or getting a better understanding of where your psychological issues your child may be dealing with, GetYourKidsInternetSafe is here as your resource.

Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Brooke Vandenbosch for teaching us about the #RisksofHashTags. If you’re looking to get a better understanding of issues your teen may be struggling with like suicidal ideation, check out my other article The Death of Robin Williams: Suicidal Impulse, the Media, and Your Obligation As a Compassionate Citizen of the Planet.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Photo Credits

I Died So I Couldn’t Haunt You, CC BY-ND 2.0

Holding Hands, CC BY-NC 2.0

Works Cited

Moreno, A.M., Ton, A., Selkie, E., & Evans, Y. (2015). Secret Society 123: Understanding the Language of Self-Harm on Instagram. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58, 78-84

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