One of the new Pinterest exercises, called “Redirect Your Energy,” offers guided practices around journaling, drawing, scribbling, or making a playlist as ways of releasing intense emotions. Another, called “Cool Down,” instructs someone to hold an ice cube in their hand or the crook of their arm and then focus on it as it melts.
These strategies borrow concepts from dialectical behavior therapy, like self-soothing or distracting when difficult emotions come up. “There are generally two ways people feel that leads to them having the urge to self-harm—either they have so much emotion that it is overwhelming or it’s the opposite, they feel nothing or numb and want to feel something,” Vasan says. Watching a melting ice cube might seem overly simplistic, but Vasan says stuff like this is proven to work. It’s immediate, and it can serve as either a distraction or a way to feel a strong sensation, which “goes directly to the core of the emotional experience.”
Pinterest has been mindful to let organizations like Vasan’s design the experiences around compassionate search, combining the platform’s user data with evidence-backed research around what works for improving emotional outcomes. “I’m pretty shocked by how long it’s taken us to get here,” says Sharp, “let alone other companies that have the same user behavior.”
Searches around depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns have always been a part of Pinterest, as on other parts of the internet. (Pinterest declined to share specific numbers on how many people search for “self-harm,” but noted that it is not a new phenomenon.) Rates of documented self-harm are on the rise in kids and young adults, Vasan says, although what role, if any, online platforms themselves play is still up for debate. What is clear is that people who plan to self-harm have some relationship to the internet—whether it’s Googling the term, posting about their feelings, or otherwise looking for help. “There’s an opportunity to meet those pinners where they are,” says Sharp.
Other major platforms have also designed experiences to help users in crisis, or redirect them toward reputable mental health organizations. On Facebook, searches for “depression” lead users to a landing page that offers the phone numbers for several crisis hotlines, along with a series of self-care exercises. Because this is Facebook, there’s also a recommendation to reach out to a trusted Facebook friend, with an automated message written by the company: “Hi, I’m going through something difficult and was hoping to talk with you about it. If that’s OK with you, please message me back.” Instagram points users toward a similar page for hashtags like #depression and #suicide. If you search for “depression” on Google, the search returns a box that defines the condition, along with an optional diagnostic survey to check if you are clinically depressed.