Viewing self-harm images online can trigger young people to hurt themselves, study finds

Posed image of a self-harm victim. Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

Jane Kirby

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