Scrolling through y0ung-blood, a wildly popular Tumblr, eventually you’ll see a picture of a daisy strung along a wall. Underneath it, there’s a message.
Further down, you’ll see more words overlaid on images.
Then there’s a picture of her, the girl (at least, supposedly) behind the Tumblr: pale, with brown hair. Beautiful. She’s cool in a way that isn’t like girls at school, but that’s been in books and movies: the sad, beautiful girl who reads The Catcher in the Rye and listens to the Smiths. She receives anonymous messages asking about her life and complimenting her, and notes from people who seem to be her friends.
This part of Tumblr is familiar to 19-year-old Gillian Andrews. She, like many other teens on the blogging website, has experienced mental illness.
The California native felt unable to talk about her self-harm, depression, and anxiety with her family and didn’t have many friends when she began using Tumblr at 14. But here, she quickly realized, her mental illness was not merely accepted — it was encouraged.
“It became cool to define yourself by mental illness [on Tumblr],” Andrews said. “Like, in order to be interesting or valid, you had to have some kind of it.”
An entire Tumblr community has formed around embracing depression and anxiety. While pockets of this community are supportive and helpful for users, Janis Whitlock, a Cornell University researcher who studies how teens process mental illness using social media, said certain subsets of the blogging website can be a “cauldron of unhappiness.”
This Tumblr subculture began to flourish in 2013, according to a flurry of thinkpieces. It developed from an aesthetic called “soft grunge,” which paired beauty and intelligence with a loner aesthetic. Posts are marked by pop culture mainstays like Skins, Lana Del Rey, and Marina and the Diamonds, who are sort of like the community’s antiheroes. Sometimes, you find refuge in a place that accepts your sadness — but other times, the constant rumination and idolization of certain images, quotes, and celebs is just negative reinforcement.
“This is exactly the kind of romanticizing I think that a huge part of Tumblr is doing,” explained Swedish film student Hampus Leijon, 22, who started using the site at 16, while experiencing depression. “Just making it seem like — depression, suicide, this is cool. If you want to be part of the club, you gotta be insecure and unstable in some way. I’m not a fan.”
This corner of the internet “promote(s) isolation or negative feelings,” Erin Tatum wrote for Everyday Feminism in 2013. “[It] basically transforms taboo emotions like self-doubt into an aesthetic. Feelings of worthlessness or disillusionment become synonymous with and indicative of true tortured beauty, as well as intelligence and particularly psychological depth.” Why did Tumblr become the perfect place for online angst?
How Tumblr Became Depressed
Tumblr launched in 2007 as a blog-meets-social-network. And unlike on a typical blog, where you’re an unknown URL floating in cyberspace, Tumblr’s structure encourages community via features it pioneered, like resharing posts and direct messaging.
Tumblr users maintain a range of content types and communities — humor that excites and impacts the internet; thriving fandom communities; role-playing universes that exist entirely within the platform; subcultures around food, sex, fitness, and art; and a strong emphasis on social justice. Tumblr was one of the earliest places where activists rallied the internet’s attention.
Since Tumblr’s peak period (which seemed to curb around the time of its 2013 acquisition by Yahoo), its growth has slowed while Instagram and Snapchat have exploded. But unlike these two networks, which some see as vessels for cherry-picking and highlighting the best parts of your life, Tumblr has always felt like a comfortable place to be honest, weird, and maybe even depressed. (It’s also worth noting that Tumblr’s most popular hours differ dramatically from those of other social networks: Weekday afternoons are when Facebook and Twitter are buzzing — but Tumblr gets going late at night, especially on Fridays.)
This is, in part, assisted by anonymity (something Facebook flat-out fights) — there’s no standard of attaching a name to your account or way to look at who others are following. Not even Twitter and Instagram can do that. Reddit, which also offers complete anonymity, has also become a popular gathering place for those with mental illness. It’s even been a space for incredibly effective support groups. Clearly, internet anonymity can have its benefits.
Whitlock, the Cornell research scientist, said the most important component of an internet community like this is the anonymity. “People don’t feel comfortable heading to school with signs saying ‘I self-injure, come talk to me.’ The internet allows people to shrug off the geographic boundaries that have always been there to mask themselves and hide who they are.”
There’s a reason that these sorts of groups haven’t as obviously manifested on Facebook and Twitter; mental illness is often seen as a taboo that few young people want to attach themselves to. Furthermore, Tumblr’s user base leans female and young, according to the Pew Research Center. Those are the two demographics most susceptible to depression and anxiety. Julie Garcia, a therapist based in Northern California, told me over the phone that teens and adults often base their self-esteem on social media. It can even exacerbate the symptoms of those who already have mental illness. “They’re making social media a place where they become vulnerable, and they don’t always get positive feedback,” said Garcia, who has worked in three different high schools in addition to treating teens in her private practice.
“I was more open about my weird issues [on Tumblr],” Andrews said. “I could talk more openly to a group of strangers than I could to people I had to face every day and, I think, worry about me.” Quickly browsing Tumblr will prove Andrews is hardly alone: There are countless anonymous, confessional blogs discussing topics like eating disorders and self-harm. Some of those posts have hundreds of thousands of interactions. Sustained feelings of loneliness, unhappiness, and other potential symptoms of mental illness can be a common friendship base for those who are struggling, Garcia said. “They are connecting and they get each other. It’s comfortable if you’re both depressed.”
“For me, Tumblr was a place I thought people could find themselves, especially if you’re an outsider in some kind of way,” said Leijon. While he is right that Tumblr can be a positive place for teens to explore their identities, Whitlock said the problem is that it’s like a group-therapy session with no therapist. Here, young, depressed people are hearing things only from other young, depressed people.
“Sometimes hearing other people’s stories for why they did the same thing you did can be just, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, right, we’re all here,’ and everyone just gets into this mode,” Leijon said. “It just gets reinforced over and over again.”
Lavinia Tanzim, a 23-year-old art student, experienced this after several years on Tumblr. She largely relied on the website to process her own experiences with sexual assault and mental illness.
“It kind of helped me feel like I wasn’t alone, like there were other people out there who were experiencing the same thing as me, and it wasn’t my fault,” she tells me over the phone. “It helped validate me in that sense.” Tanzim isn’t the only one who’s had a positive mental health experience using Tumblr. A story in The Guardian this past May focused on the wide scope of mental health resources and activism. The report found Tumblr often avails itself as a positive influence to teens who might not be connected at school or home who are looking for ideas on how to curb body-picking or practice self-care. There’s a general openness on Tumblr to discussing those sorts of stigmatized topics, and the site has recently strove to incorporate it as part of its brand. “In a country where the path to obtaining consistent, quality mental health care is defined by its roadblocks, [and] Tumblr’s mental health communities seem to be filling in the gaps for care,” The Guardian story says.
Many users also take it upon themselves to make Tumblr a positive place. There are advice blogs started by young adults to help those struggling and inspiring posts with tens of thousands of reblogs — like this self-proclaimed tiny potato that says, “I believe in you. YOU CAN DO THE THING.” These things may seem small, but to some users, they are important affirmations. Leijon recalls seeing a post like this when he was experiencing depression. It read something like: “Hey, if you’re reading this, and it’s super shitty, that sucks, man, and things are gonna work out. Just, like, keep at it and I love you.”
“And I remember breaking down crying from reading that,” Leijon said. “I lived on that for a long time, especially because it said, ‘I love you, wherever you are, you’re super loved, by me.’”
The difficulty comes not from these more positive posts, but in communities that might become too enveloped in a shared sadness. This is what Tanzim found: She had quit self-harming before joining Tumblr, but restarted in part due to constantly seeing “glorifying” posts of self-harm, including GIFs of girls cutting their wrists.
“It would make me feel like shit about myself sometimes,” Tanzim said. “I would see all these images and feel so ugly and hate myself so much.” Echoing Whitlock’s studies on moderated and unmoderated discussions about mental illness, Tanzim said her friendships became based on unhealthy venting — sharing what was going on in each other’s lives without much conclusion.
Sometimes this venting can even take on a competitive tone. “A lot of the text posts about depression made me feel bad because it always seemed worse than mine,” said Andrews. “I didn’t feel like I should be allowed to have validation in being sad because someone else had it worse.”
Joining — and Leaving — the Club
There is a club: Leijon tells me about the so-called 27 Club, a group of artists who died at age 27, typically from drug overdose or suicide. It includes Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
“It’s like this cool club,” Leijon said, speaking via Skype from his home on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island. “It’s almost like you want to be part of the 27 Club. You know who is in the 27 Club. There’s Kurt Cobain, there’s all these cool people. That for me is super uncomfortable, that there’s even a club like that’s something you would joke about.”
Cobain in particular is an icon for this community. His suicide note is de rigueur reblogging material, along with his quotes on feminism and photos of him smoking cigarettes. “I think it’s so fucked up,” Leijon said. “It angers me so, so, so much to make young people think that, like, suicide — that this is hip? Or cool?” The fact is, there are many young people who actually want to die, and not because it is part of a cool internet subculture.
Other idols include Effy Stonem — a character from the U.K.’s Skins who parties too much and has what the show suggests is psychotic depression — and Lana Del Rey, a singer known for songs about sadness and destructive qualities. Parts of her song “Off to the Races” are popular blogging material:
Because I’m crazy, baby
I need you to come here and save me
I’m your little scarlet, starlet
Singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth
Ready for you
Del Rey has spoken about having panic attacks, and being sad in general, though she’s never said anything more specific about her potential diagnosis. But part of her public brand, at least as it is perceived, is melancholy.
A big part of the problem is that there’s not much intervention on triggering posts. Leah Linder, a communications manager at Tumblr who runs the site’s Post It Forward mental health campaign, explained that users can report any content found to be worrying or promoting harmful behavior. And if you search for tags like “depression” or “cutting,” you’re directed to support resources. It’s not a perfect system, and it’s new, too — Post It Forward launched only last year. I searched “lol i hate myself,” “kill me,” and “i wish i was dead” on Tumblr’s tags and didn’t get a referral to any mental health support. The more blunt “suicide” and “death” tags redirected me to a page that asked me, “Everything okay?” and included a slew of links to free support.
But it’s easy to skirt these disclaimers, and even just happening upon triggering images and posts occurs when searching for even the most generic terms or clicking your way through and exploring the platform. Elements of this subset of posts seeps through the network.
That may be partially because much of the content manages to slide under Tumblr’s community guidelines radar. Its attributes match what makes Tumblr so appealing — honesty, art, irreverent humor. A screencap of Skins character Cassie Ainsworth saying, “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely,” might not violate community guidelines, though it’s classic reblogging material for this part of Tumblr.
“Issues of depression and self-harm are extremely challenging for platforms like ours that encourage and empower self-expression,” Linder wrote in an email to me. The fact that there’s no one actively moderating every single Tumblr exchange, which of course isn’t feasible on a site with 319 million blogs, allows users to constantly reinforce each other’s thoughts. Unless users take it upon themselves to report triggering content, nothing changes.
In 2013 Tanzim deleted her account after years spent perfecting it, posting illustrations, and documenting her gradual recovery from her sexual assault.
“It wears you down after a while,” she says. “It was taking a toll on me, and physically I was taking it out on myself. I was, like, ‘Maybe, you know, this is not healthy. I should step out for a while.’”