Secret Codes on Social Media - Valley Behavioral Health
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September 8, 2020 By Julia Hood, Ph.D., BCBA, NCSP

Teen looking at her phone with social media apps on the screen
Many have claimed that Generation Z (Gen Z) is the most at-risk generation for mental illness as studies have shown a link between social media and poor mental and emotional health.  Gen Z includes individuals born between 1995 and 2015 and ranging in age from 4-24 years old.  The concerns for the mental health of Gen Z has been exacerbated further by the pandemic.  Isolation and increased mental distress surrounding what is happening with the pandemic is affecting many people, including those considered Gen Z.

Children, particularly teenagers and young adults, have always tried to communicate about certain things without their parents’ or other adults’ knowledge.  They used to have secret codes, keywords, or folded notes they pass to each other in class.  Now, social media has offered a new platform for communicating with peers without adult knowledge.  Teens are now communicating with complex emoji codes, hashtags, and phrases that have a secret meaning.

On Instagram and Tumbler, teens use hashtags to communicate different mental health conditions, including depression and suicidal ideation.  One commonly used hashtag is #mysecretfamily, which has 20.2k posts when searched on Instagram.  There are multiple posts encouraging the use of the following terms to refer to mental health diagnoses:


List of common mental health disorders and their secret code names teens use on social media

Other common hashtags used include #secretsociety123, #KMS, and #tobeornottobe to indicate suicidal ideation.  Many post encouragement and support for the individuals who are posting about a diagnosis or suicidal ideation, but there are some hashtags that encourage dangerous behavior.

Thinspiration is a term describing the encouragement and inspiration for people to be thin.  The hashtag used to indicate thinspiration is #thinspo.  Related hashtags include #proana, inciting pro-anorexia, and #promia indicating pro-bulimia.  Often, these hashtags are used to encourage weight loss, even unhealthy weight loss, and discourage those with anorexia or bulimia from getting help.  This can lead to very dangerous outcomes and also have a negative influence on teens who visit these sites.

Instagram has flagged many hashtags, provided resources, and removed select posts. When you search some of these hashtags and click to go to all images with this hashtag, you receive a message asking if you need help.  If you click the link to get support, it takes you to a webpage encouraging you to reach out to one of your friends, talk to someone at a helpline, or get ideas of how to support yourself.

On TikTok, “I had pasta tonight”, “I told someone my favorite pasta recipe”, or “I finished my shampoo and conditioner at the same time” translates to “I am feeling depressed, anxious, or experiencing suicidal thoughts.”  Oftentimes, the use of these codes on the internet and social media platforms is a safe way to communicate what they are experiencing.

It can be difficult for parents to know what to do, how to monitor their children, and how to talk to them about concerns with mental health and suicidal ideation.  This is complicated by a whole other set of codes that are meant to keep parents from knowing what kids are communicating with each other.  Some of these codes are listed below:

List of common acronyms and codes teens use to talk about inappropriate topics on social media

Parents need to be pro-active about their child’s internet access and usage.  It is so easy to stumble onto inappropriate websites or access inappropriate content depending on the apps being used.  Make sure you know what apps they are using and how the app is misused.  Start conversations with your kids when they are young about the appropriate use of the internet and apps, as well as what to do if you come across an inappropriate site or have someone communicating with them inappropriately.  It can be really helpful to create a safe and open line of communication so that kids feel comfortable coming to you to ask questions, share what they are seeing, and ask for help if needed.

There are parental control apps that can help with monitoring.  One app that can be used is Bark, an app that monitors texts, email, YouTube, and 30+ apps and social media platforms for signs of issues like cyberbullying, sexual content, online predators, depression, suicidal ideation, threats of violence, and more.  There are a number of similar apps including Custodio, WebWatcher, and NetNanny.  If you don’t purchase an app, make sure you have a way to monitor what your kids are doing and seeing.

We are here to support you and your teens. For more information about services that we offer that can help, contact us!

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