A new study has found that YouTube videos depicting cutting and other forms of self-harm are disturbingly popular. But they may actually be helping sufferers, rather than encouraging their behavior.
According to ABC, Canadian researchers have found that the top 100 self-harm videos on YouTube have been viewed over 2 million times and favorited over 12,000 times. As of December 2009, when the study was conducted, 90% of these videos included stills of self-inflicted injuries, and 28% included actual footage of people harming themselves. The popularity of these videos, as well as prevalence of the behavior among young people (according to the researchers, 15-30% of high school students in 17-40% of college students self-harm), are certainly disturbing — but researchers say the videos could actually be helpful rather than harmful. Says study author Stephen Lewis, "We found that very few videos actually encourage self-injury. Most were neutral or hopeful for overcoming this issue." And, writes ABC's Courtney Hutchison,
for the majority of the videos, promoting self-harm did not seem to be the intention. Often, the videos supplied educational information such as prevalence statistics or shared stories of beating self-harm behavior after many years struggling with it. Still others featured scars and warned viewers against the dangers of using self harm as a means of coping.
Hutchison also quotes Kevin Caruso, executive director of Suicide.org, who says, "based on the countless communications I have had with people who self-injure, the vast majority of information and videos on the Internet helps and comforts self-injurers more than it puts them in danger." The Internet has long been a refuge for people who feel isolated in their lives, and it's perhaps no surprise that people who self-harm often seek comfort online, anonymously. Caruso says many sufferers hide their injuries under clothing, and while that's upsetting, it's not hard to see the reason. Self-harm still faces a lot of stigma — first keep it secret, it's still often viewed as an attention-getting behavior. Couple that with the difficulty of finding mental health care, and it's no wonder that young people are going online instead of seeking treatment.
But even comforting videos aren't a substitute for professional therapy, and it's tough to predict what an individual self-harm sufferer will find triggering rather than helpful. Perhaps clinicians can use the video research, though, to craft new resources for people who self-injure. Maybe YouTube would be a good distribution channel for information about help lines and affordable therapy — and maybe people who self-harm would be more likely to seek professional help if they could learn about it on sites they're already visiting.
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