Tumblr Blocks Some Mental Health Topics, Thwarts Therapy

LibbiAs a member of the Millennial Generation, Libbi Gildea, 20, discovered a new coping mechanism for dealing with an age-old mental health issue - social media.

But just as she started to heal from a personal trauma, she found that a tech giant was starting to dismantle her new, safe space.

In December 2012, Libbi was raped on the campus of a prestigious school in Massachusetts. She was 19 at the time, a college sophomore. After the attack, she developed PTSD and depression and took time off school, trying to heal. She spent time recovering in the hospital, and traditional talk therapy helped. But, she says, she found the most comfort in a more contemporary setting. Libbi joined the microblogging site Tumblr and started browsing posts tagged with topics she was interested in, like depression and PTSD, meeting others that were going through similar experiences. In an interview, she gave me permission to use her name, and explained how she evolved from feeling totally alone after the assault, to much more connected and supported through social media:

I felt really isolated because I didn't know anyone else that had PTSD. You don't realize that what you're experiencing is normal ... After I was done with the hospital and I didn't have group therapy anymore, a friend mentioned that there was a pretty vibrant mental health community on Tumblr.

So I made a blog there. I started randomly one day, posting that I wished I could make a mental health "resume" so I wouldn't have to go through my experience every time I saw a new doctor. I did another post of more of a personal nature on the night of my birthday because I was angry and feeling that my attacker had taken a lot away from me. I wrote him an open letter that said, "You may have raped me, you may have taken this from me, but I'm still here, and my life is only going to get better, and frankly, I feel sorry for you."

Friends from college or high school are supportive, but because they've known you longer, it can be hard to interact with them, feeling like you're a completely different person after what's happened. They're never going to be able to understand and be supportive in the same way that a person who's experienced it can. I've met a lot of people and made some really close friends who blog about the same things. In December, it'll be the anniversary of when I was assaulted, and I'm going to invite a bunch of Tumblr people, have a cake, probably, and just do some low-stress activities. They're the people who understand it and know what to say, and I'm looking forward to it.

I would definitely categorize my Tumblr as a supplement to therapy. There have even been times when, if there's something I'm having difficulty talking about in therapy, my therapist will say, "Why don't you write a post about it." I think that expressing yourself and writing and creative outlets are some of the best ways to process trauma, so I do that a lot.

But in July, things changed. Users started noticing that certain hashtags were blocked. You can search for "puppies" and find a list of blogs and posts with that topic. But searching for "depression" shows a message that says "No results for depression". Same with "hurt." "Gay", "homosexual" and "lesbian" are blocked terms as well.
tumblr hashtags
There is a way around the blocked tags - but only if you know your way around Tumblr's user settings. Today, users are automatically opted into a checkbox that says, "Browse tag pages in Safe Mode - Hide content from NSFW blogs." Unchecking the box lets you search as normal. But advocates decried the censorship and pointed out that the wording for this option is a problem. Who gets to determine what's "safe" anyway? More from Libbi:

I find it very insulting, because it sets the standard that depression is not something you should talk about, or not safe or not family friendly, when in reality, I think everyone would be better off if they could talk about it the same way they talk about anything else. It's been hard, because Tumblr has always been a safe haven for people dealing with stigma, and the idea that it's not anymore is frustrating.

Let's say a new user did know there was an option to unblock tags by clicking something that says, "I want to allow things that are not safe for work." Maybe they start feeling, "Oh, this is a really sad thing that's happening to me, that's supposed to be private, maybe there's something inherently bad in me and I shouldn't be looking for this, something that has to be filtered and has to be silenced." That's the opposite of what we should be telling people who are depressed. We should be telling them that it's normal and that you can find help for it and not that you have to keep it inside.

There's always been a lot of variety in why people choose to follow my blog. I tag a lot of my posts as "depression." Before that tag was blocked, I would get a lot of people who were going through the tag and followed me specifically for those posts. Since then, the new followers I've been getting are not as interested in my mental health posts. I feel that blocking the term has stopped people from finding and reaching out to others and building a community and finding support.

I know I was really really shaken and upset the first time I realized that the "depression" tag wasn't working, because I was just using it to find someone I could talk to.


The Tumblr staff did not respond to CommonHealth's phone or email requests for comment, but they did explain their reasoning in a statement. On July 19, 2013, founder David Karp wrote:

All, we’ve heard from a bunch of you who are concerned about Tumblr censoring NSFW/adult content. While there seems to be a lot of misinformation flying around, most of the confusion seems to stem from our complicated flagging/filtering features. Let me clear up (and fix) a few things:

Some search terms are blocked (returning no results) in some of our mobile apps. Unfortunately, different app environments have different requirements that we do our best to adhere to. The reason you see innocent tags like #gay being blocked on certain platforms is that they are still frequently returning adult content which our entire app was close to being banned for. The solution is more intelligent filtering which our team is working diligently on. We’ll get there soon.

Aside from these fixes, there haven’t been any recent changes to Tumblr’s treatment of NSFW content, and our view on the topic hasn’t changed. Empowering your creative expression is the most important thing in the world to us. Making sure people aren’t surprised by content they find offensive is also incredibly important and we are always working to put more control in your hands.

The "different app environments" that Karp mentions include things like the iPhone App Store or the Droid Google Play store. It seems that the official explanation from Tumblr was that they blocked tags that returned adult content and jeopardized their app's inclusion in each app store. Interesting, because the tags appear as blocked for me, not on my phone, but on my laptop.

Readers, have the changing policies of major social media sites ever left you in the lurch?

This program aired on August 30, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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