Researchers have found hidden hashtags teens are using on social media to connect with others engaging in risky or self-harming behavior. Here's what you need to know.

sad girl sitting on stairs using her smartphone
Credit: DGLimages/Shutterstock

You may think you know what you're looking for when you scroll through your teens' Instagram feeds, but do you really? Because as parents and schools and even the social media companies themselves begin to vigilantly police kids' accounts in order to crack down on inappropriate content, our children are getting craftier. Which means there are sometimes secret code words hidden within their posts that let them discreetly share with their community of followers their proclivities for say, getting high, making themselves throw up, or cutting themselves.

Why, you may be wondering, would teens want to divulge this type of self-harming behavior to a bunch of strangers? According to Megan A. Moreno, M.D., MPH, who practices adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital, it's so they will feel less alone.

"There's a lot of shame, a lot of stigma," she explained to New York Magazine. "And so I think that discovering these online communities can be a huge lightening of your load. You think, 'I'm not the first person to experience this.'"

Makes sense. And, of course, Dr. Moreno knows of which she speaks. She and three colleagues recently scrutinized hundreds of Instagram posts in order to identify which secret hashtags our kids are using to communicate self-harm most often, then published their findings last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Now experts like Katie Schumacher, author and founder of the initiative Don't Press Send, are determined to help parents better monitor their kids' social media use so they can be on the lookout for any major red flags.

"I have been asked about tracking kids online often by both parents and teachers," Schumacher explained to "The answer is that it really varies by child and per age. Reviewing the rules and going over guidelines and strategies with your child is a must. Let your child know that you will be monitoring their activities online to make sure that they adhere to them. Once enough time has passed and they have shown that they are responsible/capable then you can slowly give them a little more freedom."

The following is a list of the top 10 hashtags with hidden meanings that Schumacher advises all parents to get familiar with. A quick word of caution here: I searched all of these hashtags on Instagram and found most of the posts to be pretty dark and disturbing. As the parent of a teen, they scared the crap out of me—I mean, these are kids my daughter's age posting these things. Worrisome, to say the least.

Granted, a search for the majority of the hashtags brought up a generic disclaimer from Instagram—"Posts with words or tags you're searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you're going through a difficult time, we'd like to help"—but given the bleak nature of most of these posts, I still feel like we should collectively be doing more.

You'll see what I mean as you check out this list:

1. #deb for "depression"

2. #sue for "suicide"

3. #ana for "anorexic"

4. #mia for "bulimia"

5. #ednos for "eating disorder not otherwise specified"

6. #thinsp for "thinspo" or "thinspiration"

7. #borderline for "borderline personality disorder"

8. #svv for "selbstverletzendes verhalten" or self-harming behavior

9. #secretsociety123 for a community of people who engage in NSSH, or non-suicidal self harm

10. #420 for "weed" or "pot," which can also be represented by the maple leaf emoji, any of the green leaf or tree emojis, the pineapple (a reference to stoner flick Pineapple Express), and the green check mark, as in "Yes, I have or can get some."

Like I said, this stuff is all pretty dark and scary. So what should you do if you stumble across one of these words on your child's post? We asked Schumacher, who says parents should first track how far back the hashtag goes and look at the types of responses your child has received from their social media community in order to determine if they are using the words to join an existing conversation or if they are actually engaging in the behavior themselves.

"Look into this matter thoroughly," she explains. "And if you feel there is even the slightest chance that your child is engaging in self-harm or struggling with depression, be sure to talk to them in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental way. This is a good time to introduce them into self-reflection and bring in medical professionals to offer proper support and guidance."

And make no mistake: If you suspect your child or any other teen you know is suicidal, it's important to take action immediately. For 24-hour suicide prevention and support in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. And to learn more about suicide risk factors, warning signs, and what to do in a crisis, read this Suicide Prevention Guide.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.