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Tumblr’s Ban on Self-Harm Blogs Ignites Debate

When Tumblr banned self-harm blogs in late February, they not only ignited a spirited debate but also spurred Pinterest and Instagram to follow suit. While these are well-intentioned policy shifts that are largely embraced, they do present some complicated questions about freedom of speech and the best way to help those engaging in self-harm practices such as eating disorders, self-mutilation, and suicide.

Are our concerns about overreaching founded? Will this ultimately do more harm than good? The danger of the slippery slope is that you do not realize how quickly you are hurtling towards disaster until it’s too late. Examining the issue more closely today may prevent mayhem from gaining momentum tomorrow.

In case you do not know, there are several communities online that promote self-destructive behaviors that are generally linked to mental illness. These communities provide encouragement and instruction to their members.

The most insidious faction is probably the pro-anorexic (pro-ana) and pro-bulimia (pro-mia) groups. In the name of thinspiration or thinspo, members share dangerous dieting tips, self-harm rationalizations, and photos of emaciated bodies. The demographic is predominantly female teenagers, but also includes teenage boys and older individuals from both genders. In addition to cultivating an atmosphere of competition, these communities celebrate eating disorders and validate them as lifestyle choices as opposed to the illnesses they actually are. While the pro-ana community predates Tumblr, it had become the primary home for many of these proponents of starvation.

In its initial announcement, Tumblr stated, “We are deeply committed to supporting and defending our users’ freedom of speech, but we do draw some limits. As a company, we’ve decided that some specific kinds of content aren’t welcome on Tumblr.” Of course, they are completely within their rights to refuse hosting certain types of content, and they reminded us they already do so by prohibiting spam and identity theft. This policy differs, however, because it judges the actual content not shady commercial practices. Still, most agree their position is completely reasonable, and when you read the actual policy, it is clearly a nuanced directive.

The first draft read:

“Active Promotion of Self-Harm. Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or mutilate themselves; embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or commit suicide rather than, e.g., seek counseling or treatment for depression or other disorders. Online dialogue about these acts and conditions is incredibly important; this prohibition is intended to reach only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification. For example, joking that you need to starve yourself after Thanksgiving or that you wanted to kill yourself after a humiliating date is fine, but recommending techniques for self-starvation or self-mutilation is not.”

More than 2,500 emails and 25,000 likes, reblogs, and replies later, Tumblr refined its language to reassure users that blogs which engage in “discussion, support, encouragement, and documenting the experiences of those dealing with difficult conditions,” would still be welcome and have no reason to anticipate a change in service.

Tumblr also acknowledged that the distinction between “blogs that are intended to trigger self-harm and those that support sufferers and build community,” is not always easy to discern. Therefore, its team will manually review potential problems on a blog-by-blog basis. While it is understandable and even healthy to harbor some residual concern about censorship, ultimately, this appears to be a company with a conscience doing the right thing. Making it even more palatable, Tumblr also has begun displaying PSAs on search results for related keywords. For example, if you search for purging, pro-ana, or thinspo, you will see the following message:

“Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that when left untreated, can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information and support, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or”

While the censorship discussion may be muted and most Tumblr users have nothing to fear, the concerns about marginalizing these self-harm communities still persist. The pro-ana contingency quickly migrated to Pinterest, and, when Pinterest enacted a similar ban, they moved onto Instagram. On April 21, Instagram announced, “we won’t allow accounts, images, or hashtags dedicated to glorifying, promoting, or encouraging self-harm.” While that may be good for the community as a whole, we still need to address the needs of these dangerous sub-cultures.

Self-harm proponents will simply move onto other sites and become more covert. It will be more difficult for someone to become drawn into a self-harm community s/he simply stumbles across, but those who actively seek this content will find it. By pushing self-harm blogs underground, are we simply saving ourselves and abandoning those already entrenched in destructive behavior to their own devices?

Article by John V. Tumblr’s ban on self-harm blogs ignited a spirited debate & spurred Pinterest & Instagram to follow suit. While largely praised, questions still remain about the ultimate consequences. Article courtesy of

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