Social network users advised to challenge perceptions


TEENAGERS USING Facebook and other social networks should be warned not to take what they see at “face value”, the clinical director of a centre for the prevention of self-harm and suicide has said.

Cindy O’Connor, of Pieta House, said young people needed to learn to challenge how people portray themselves online and realise “everyone struggles”.

Her remarks came after a young man who self-harmed in his teens told a conference on self-injury at Trinity College Dublin that Facebook was “a lie” and made young people who self- harm feel even more alone.

“Eoghan”, who spoke at the conference along with his mother earlier this month, said the social network had a negative impact on his life.

“Facebook is where everyone shows pictures of themselves smiling but not of the millions of times they frowned; it is a lie; it makes you feel even more alone and makes you feel you’re wrong,” he said.

In an honest and emotional account of his experiences, Eoghan told the conference, organised by Dr Kay Inckle, from the school of social work and social policy at TCD, that he had been bullied at school for being gay and self-harm was a way of “putting the world on pause”.

He said he had felt isolated, alone and “very much an outcast”. Self-harming had seemed “very soothing and positive” at the time.

He eventually left school and spent three weeks in a psychiatric unit before being helped to recovery by counselling in the community.

“People who self-harm just need to be treated as a person, not someone who self-harms,” he said.

Speaking to The Irish Times this week, Ms O’Connor said children and adolescents should be taught to question the perception presented on social networks. “We are aware that people put their best foot forward if they are putting images on Facebook, but young people need not take that at face value,” she said. “Very often if someone is down and thinking negatively, they can’t see anything positive. It can be very easy to assume everyone else has everything sorted.”

But, she said, no one has a “charmed life. We are all human and everybody struggles sometimes; if we came from that mindset we’d encourage more people to speak out.”

Ms O’Connor also said bullying on social networks was a serious problem and could lead to self-harm and suicide. She said parents had a responsibility to see what their children were engaged in online and to keep the lines of communication open so that they “really know” what their children’s experiences are.

The centre, which provides free therapeutic services to people in the acute stages of distress, has seen a “huge surge” in demand for services since January, Ms O’Connor said. It is in the process of hiring more therapists to prevent the growth of waiting lists at its five centres around the State.