Millions of people watch YouTube videos depicting teens injuring and cutting themselves, according to a new study. The authors conclude that the videos may serve to legitimize the behaviors as acceptable, even normal.
To assess the scope and accessibility of self-injury videos on the Internet, Stephen Lewis of the University of Guelph, and colleagues searched YouTube for keywords like “self-harm,” and “self-injury.”
They found that the top 100 most frequently viewed videos were watched more than 2.3 million times. Ninety-five percent of the viewers were female. Their average age was 25, although Lewis’ group suspects their actual average age was lower, since some YouTube viewers provide restricted content only to older viewers.
Typically, the videos contained graphic images of cutting, embedding and burning. Many of the videos contained statements of despair or images of sad or crying people. About 42% of the videos neither encouraged nor discouraged self-injury. An additional 26% denounced the behavior, while 23% gave a mixed message and 7% actually encouraged people to perform the depicted behavior.
Most of the videos contained no warnings or viewing restrictions. Viewers tended to rate these videos highly (an average score of 4.61 out of 5). Self-harm videos were identified as “favorites” over 12,000 times.
“Nonsuicidal self-injury videos on YouTube may foster normalization of nonsuicidal self-injury and may reinforce the behavior through regular viewing,” wrote the authors. “This may have triggering-like consequences for those who have enacted nonsuicidal self-injury repetitively and for youth who have just started to self-injure and who may come across these videos.”
Scientists have reported elsewhere that the incidence of nonsuicidal self-injury is between 14-24% among children, teens, and young adults. Six to seven percent of adolescents say they do it regularly. The behavior is thought to be a risk factor for maladaptive socialization and various psychiatric illnesses. Although the behavior isn’t intended to be suicidal, scientists believe that the distress it provokes can trigger suicidal ideation or suicide. And of course, the behavior can lead to accidental suicides as well.
For more information on this topic, please see HelpGuide.org. Lewis’ write-up appears in Pediatrics.