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Secret Hashtags Can Promote Dangerous Teen Behavior, Study Says

Update Date: Dec 21, 2015 09:54 AM EST

Can social media be making teenagers more prone to indulging in dangerous activities?

Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health  disclosed that a number of teenagers share their "non-suicidal but harmful activities", such as "cutting, scratching or burning themselves" with followers, but hide them with "secret hashtags" that do not make their activities open to their parents. Worryingly, they tend to encourage their peers to follow their harmful activities.

Hence, vague terms such as #blithe, #cat, #MySecretFamily and #SecretSociety123 were the secret codes that were used to refer to the harmful activities, according to research.

Moreno and her team searched Instagram, a popular photo sharing platform, using #selfharmmm to identify the activities of teenagers. They found pictures of kids sharing their destructive habits and they also discovered more strange terms. The hashtags #Deb, #Annie and #Olive were used to describe "depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder".

"The online communities that develop around these hashtags can draw in adolescents and provide them a strong sense of belonging and support that is centered on these unhealthy behaviors," said the study's lead author and adolescent behavior specialist Megan Moreno, via Yahoo. "This can make recovery from these behaviors more challenging."

There has also been a steady rise in the number of hashtags. For instance in 2014, searching for #selfharmmm brought out 1.7 million results, yet has now moved up at 2.4 million results for 2015.

Internet users told social media sites to "flag and remove these posts" and also suggested to Facebook that it could work out a policy regarding such hashtags.

Instagram is reported to give a warning if it gets certain hashtags relating to suicide and self-harm, according to News Corp. Australia.

Moreno's team underlined the need for parents to become more communicative with their children for online activities. An expert said that through social media an effective campaign can be used against such behaviour.

"Kids might not listen to their parents or adults in general, but they still might be influenced by their peers within social media and user communities might succeed where parents and health campaigns fail," said Atte Oksanen in the Yahoo report.

Oksaken's study on anorexia online campaigns was published in the journal Pediatrics.

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