Self-harm images online 'can trigger young people to hurt themselves'

The sight of images of self-harm on social media platforms can prompt young people into carrying out similar acts, research has found. — Photo: Weronika Peneshko/dpa

LONDON: Viewing self-harm images online can trigger young people to hurt themselves and usually causes harm, a new study from the University of Oxford in Britain suggests.

Experts looked at 15 existing studies and concluded that viewing such material does more harm than good, with all the studies finding harmful effects.

These include escalation of self-harm, reinforcing self-harming through commenting on and sharing images, comparing self-harm with others and the “development of a self-harm identity”.

People who feel connected through self-harming may be more likely to hurt themselves, while images can trigger the urge to self-harm, the studies found.

However, the team said further studies are needed as nine of the research papers also indicated some “protective” effects for some young people, including reduction in urges to self-harm, social connection with other people and providing and receiving support.

Writing in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the researchers concluded: “Viewing self-harm images online may have both harmful and protective effects, but harmful effects predominated in the studies.”

Keith Hawton, professor of psychiatry and director of the centre for suicide research at Oxford, and a lead author on the article, said: “This review of studies from across the world, mostly on young people, provides strong support for concerns about the potential impact of viewing images of self-harm.

“However, the mixed nature of the evidence indicates the complexity of issues regarding restrictions on online images of self-harm.

“While most people would agree that platforms which allow promotion of self-harm or suicide should be restricted, the situation regarding sharing of self-harm images between individuals or groups of individuals is less clear, especially as, while this can clearly be harmful, it can also be a source of support and recovery.

“I believe that the results of our review provide evidence that is helpful for the current debate on influences of viewing images of self-harm online and in social media. This needs to be supplemented by more in-depth research.”

In the UK, the government’s Online Safety Bill, which is currently with the House of Lords, would mean technology companies have to stop children from seeing content that poses a risk of causing significant harm.

Earlier this month, Rishi Sunak said his daughter getting her own phone made him more aware of the risks to children of going online.

The Prime Minister said the Bill is a “necessary piece of legislation” to reassure parents about the content their children view online.

Last September, a British coroner ruled schoolgirl Molly Russell died from “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.

The 14-year-old schoolgirl from Harrow, north-west London, was found dead in her bedroom after viewing content related to suicide, depression and anxiety online.

Giving his findings, coroner Andrew Walker said the “particularly graphic” content she saw “romanticised acts of self-harm”, “normalised her condition” and focused on a “limited and irrational view without any counterbalance of normality”.

He said it “sought to isolate and discourage discussion” with people who could have helped her, and instead “tended to portray self-harm and suicide as an inevitable consequence of a condition that could not be recovered from”.

Since her death in November 2017, Molly’s father Ian has campaigned for better protections for children when using social media and going online.

Dr Karima Susi, the clinical psychologist who led the Oxford review, said: “Images can trigger powerful emotions which increase the likelihood of individuals engaging in self-harm-related behaviours.

“Viewing images also provide a means whereby individuals can connect with one another and get support, which might not be available offline.

“Our findings highlight the need to address the factors that may contribute to individuals seeking support online, despite the potential for harm.

“The findings could be used to inform further research and widen awareness about the potentially harmful and protective effects of viewing self-harm images online.” – PA Media/dpa

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