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 behavior has lead to much debate about what triggers self-harming behavior, 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 that 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 prioritize 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.
“Seeing self-harm images on the Internet made me feel more competitive about self-harming. Like I had to self-harm worse than the person in that image in order to get attention”.
40% said seeing this content made them feel their own self-harm was not so serious.
However, whilst a third told us that it had made them more likely to self-harm, 16% told us that they actually did progress to self-harm, having viewed this content. A similar number (15%) told us that they had ended up self-harming more than they had planned.
“It made me feel my own self-harm wasn't "good enough" and that I needed to hurt myself more to prove I'm hurting inside.”
Similarly 40% of respondents told us that seeing this content made them feel that their own self-harming behaviour was not so serious, suggesting that this content could normalise self-harm, and maintain it as a coping strategy.
It is interesting to note that an alternative response to viewing self-harm content was the desire on the viewers part to reach out and help the person posting. 66% of respondents said that they felt like they wanted to reach out to the poster (24% disagreed and 10% said this was not applicable). 54% of respondents also felt a connection to those that shared this content as if it was confirmation that someone else was going through something similar to them.
“[seeing these images] made me feel like I wasn’t the only one”
“I don't know how it made me feel, I guess in a way I felt slightly better because then I knew people were going through the same thing as me.”
“It helped me in a way because looking at blood felt like I was expressing my feelings without actually self-harming”
The number of people who have shared graphic self-harming content online themselves is much smaller with only 13% of respondents reporting having done this. So why are people sharing this content? Mostly, it appeared to be as a way of showing others how they felt (55%). A quarter of respondents said that posting about their self-harm was a way of them not self-harming and a further quarter wanted to connect with others. 10% posted the content to ensure they got a response to their post.
Other reasons talked about in more detail included:
“I wrote my self-harm story out in poem form and it made me have a different form of release instead of self-harming.”
“I had no one to share those feelings with in real life.”
“There's the fact that it was just some blood and I didn't do anything for it to get out, i just wanted attention, and maybe i found blood cool, probably because of the lack of emotions at the time,aside i would of felt scared of it,and if i was smarter i would of not posted anything or cared.”
“I wanted to show ppl so i could get help”
“to show people what they've done to me.”
What impact does removing content have on the poster?
We asked how people felt when their self-harming content was removed. These feelings were mostly negative including upset (50%), judged (39%), confused (29%) and angry (25%). Very few felt safe or supported by the removal (4%). However, few (14%) were surprised that their content had been taken down.
81% of people felt sharing graphic content online is harmful to others.
Interestingly, when we asked respondents they believed that sharing graphic content online was more harmful to others (81% agreed) than themselves (54% agreed).
Finally, we asked whether people should be allowed to share pictures and posts talking in detail about self harm on social networks. The community were split on their thinking here perhaps also reflecting the wider debate on this 38% felt this shouldn't be allowed, 32% were unsure and 31% felt this should be allowed.
“I think it’s worth mentioning that people going through self harm are often are in need of help and deserve at least to be acknowledged.”
“It can help people but it does need to be controlled which is why Talklife has an amazing support network”
“I believe that they should be allowed to express how one feels but they should ALWAYS but some sort of warning.”
“I think it should be completely forbidden. There are so many young and easy to impress folks out there.”
“It’s hard to know if the benefit of posting them outweighs the bad”
“People use different ways to ask for help. Sometimes words are not enough.”
It is clear that this is a challenging topic lacking an easy solution. We know that self-harm for so many begins as an attempt to manage unbearable feelings and that it can develop as a coping mechanism where there is a void of alternative support.
Self-harm for so long has remained hidden away from offline family and friends. The Internet has shone a light on this behaviour in a unique and challenging way, enabling people to share and express their actions and feelings. Whilst there is undeniable benefit in highlighting the prevalence of self-harming behaviours,the reasons behind it,as well as identifying opportunities to offer support, there is also inherent risk in facilitating sharing which could normalise or exacerbate what is an unhealthy coping mechanism. The Internet spreads ‘trends’ with shocking efficiency. Perhaps rather we should be focused on offering alternative strategies and ways of coping with difficult feelings.
At TalkLife, we are working towards not only protecting users from distressing content, and finding ways of sensitively removing content that could distress others (whilst simultaneously educating and supporting), but are also encouraging new ways of being supported. When done well, peer support can offer an incredibly powerful support mechanism both to those battling and also to those further along the journey to recovery. Helping others can help you too.
We believe that giving people safe places to share difficult feelings online will continue to play a critical role in their lives or their recovery. This is especially true as we tackle the challenges that young people face when confronted with ever increasing content online. The ‘solutions’ to harmful content online are not clear cut and opinion is divided across the board. However promoting alternative ways of coping has to be a positive way forward; given the opportunity, most will take it, sooner or later.