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The Impact of the Internet on Self-Harm.

Self-harm and young people has rarely been out of the news in 2019. The prevalence of self-harm content online, coupled with a reported and dramatic rise in self-harming behaviour has lead to much debate about what triggers self-harming behaviour, how online platforms should act on this content and how we can protect those young people that are struggling.

Social networking platforms have taken a number of differing stances on self-harm content. Instagram has taken the high profile decision to ban all self-harm content across their network, including drawings and including content which had not been flagged. In contrast, it remains possible to access multiple images of self-harm through Google search, although efforts do seem to have been made to prioritise recovery content.

One challenge for any moderation team, or policy that aims to improve Internet safety, is that we still don’t fully understand enough about why people are sharing self-harm content. We also don’t completely understand the impact of viewing this content, nor the impact of removing it. Whilst there is a growing evidence base on the impact of Internet use on self-harm more generally, little is known about the specific impact of self harm content.

At TalkLife we wanted to engage with this challenge, and understand the processes better, so that we could better support those who were struggling. In 2019 we ran a snapshot user poll across the TalkLife community to hear of their experiences of sharing and viewing self-harm content online.

The following statistics are the results from a sample of the community;432 users self selected and consented to take part in the survey. We asked a range of questions that explored the viewing and posting of graphic self-harm content and also explored views on how this content should be handled. We explore some of the results below.

68% of respondents had viewed graphic self harm content.

When asked, the majority of respondents (68%) had seen graphic self-harm content online at some point; 5% were unsure. Graphic content was defined as pictures or text that talk in detail about, or show self-harming behaviours and methods. We then explored the impact that seeing such content had on those that had viewed it.

64% found this content upsetting and distressing.

“Seeing this content made me feel very uncomfortable and I'll have to stop everything and take a few deep breaths.”

From the responses, it was clear that this content is upsetting and distressing for the majority of people who view it (as reported by 64% of respondents) even though over half of respondents did not feel this content had any impact on their self-harming behaviour and 20% said this wasn’t applicable to them (suggesting that they didn’t self-harm).

“Sometimes I intentionally look at it when I feel a very strong urge to hurt myself because it helps me to calm down a bit, but seeing it without making to choice to view it before usually just makes me uncomfortable.”

Self harm content triggered 16% to go on to self-harm themselves.