- Self-harm is a frightening phenomenon that affects adolescents and young adults all over the world. While non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) has a high prevalence rate, it is not a new behavior. One of the earliest documented cases of NSSI was in ancient Greece and it has gained popularity amongst adolescents. NSSI content appears consistently on pro-NSSI social media and blog websites. Social media’s ubiquity has profound impacts on people’s behavior; young people in particular spend hours consuming social media every day. The combination of NSSI behavior and social media creates debate and controversy. While some have argued that social media creates a community of people struggling with similar issues, others argue that social media is a space to perpetuate negativity and rumination. Even though research has attempted to understand and explain NSSI behavior, there has been little research on NSSI behavior and related language on social media. This dissertation examines selected pro-NSSI social media to explore the linguistic processes and psychological processes active in pro-NSSI social media posts.
This study, which used a synchronic corpus linguistic design, has two arms; the first arm (A) focuses on pro-NSSI posts on Tumblr and the second arm (B) examined pro-NSSI posts on Reddit. Both the study on Tumblr and the study on Reddit asked the following questions: (1) What is the NSSI specific content word use of the individuals making posts? (2) What is the pattern of use of linguistic processes of the individuals making posts compared to the pattern that appears in blogs overall? (3) What is the pattern of use of psychological processes of the individuals making posts compared to the pattern that appears in blogs overall? The study used an API to collect public, pro-NSSI posts from both Reddit and Twitter that appeared between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017; these posts were then anonymized and analyzed. The API was instructed to scrape posts that: (a) monolingual English and (b) contain at least one term on a NSSI terms list compiled by the researchers. The API was instructed to eliminate user names, URLs, hashtags, location of the posts, posts from outside of the US, photographs, and foreign languages. When added together, the posts collected by the API for Research Arm A (Tumblr) had a total 330,868 total word count. For Research Arm B (Reddit), the corpus’ total word count was 228,172. The data was analyzed using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software.
For the first research question, the percentage of all words for each NSSI-specific category was reported. In addition, the raw count for each word in each category was listed in rank order. In terms of the second and third research questions, the following were reported for all categories except for emotional tone: (a) percentage of all words, (b) log likelihood statistic of the comparison of the NSSI corpus to general blog norms, and (c) log ratio of the comparison of the NSSI corpus to general blog norms. For the emotional tone category, the following were noted: (a) percentage of all words, (b) one sample z test of proportion with study results as p-hat and general blog norms as p0. When the Tumblr posts from Research Arm A were analyzed, the findings revealed that people posting their NSSI behaviors on public blogs are people who have a high desire to connect with others while sharing their pain and experience of numbness, and use high levels of negative emotional words. Overall, these results demonstrated that people posting on Tumblr about NSSI are hurting individuals reaching out for help. The findings for Research Arm B (Reddit) suggest that the posts were made in the mental state that was characterized by high levels of depression, anxiety, and neuroticism. When both research arms are considered as a whole, the results illustrated a profile of a young person who is struggling with managing intense negative emotions. The results from this study have implications for the clinical treatment by informing the counseling theories used to treat this population, transforming how counselors are trained in NSSI behaviors and investigating how research can further explore the nuances of language to have a better understanding of a difficult problem the plagues so many young people.