Alarming Social Media Trend: Self-Harm Videos

I often hear myself saying how glad I am not to have grown-up with social media. I was a freshman in college when Facebook first appeared, and then it was a tool exclusive to the university.  Eight years later, I have accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, YouTube, and LinkedIn. I wouldn’t say that I’m “active” on all of these accounts, but more of an observer.

I doubt that I’d have the same casual attitude about social media if I was coming-of-age along with it. It seems that young people are spending a lot of time living their lives online. What this will mean in the long-run is still unclear, but occasionally a new social media trend will make headlines.

The latest trend on the radar: self-harm videos on YouTube.

The Scope of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury on YouTube,” a recent study published in Pediatrics, has found that teens are uploading videos of themselves cutting or performing other acts of self-harm on the popular video-sharing site. Dr. Stephen Lewis, lead researcher and Professor of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, suggests that these videos may be reaching other vulnerable teenagers who may see the behavior as “acceptable and difficult to overcome.”

An Already Difficult Problem
For some background, Lewis and his colleagues estimate that between 14-24% of teenagers and/or “young adults” have engaged in self-harming behavior at least once. These behaviors are defined as “deliberate destruction of one’s own body tissue,” and include cutting, burning, scratching, or hitting without the intention of suicide.

Although these behaviors are sometimes dismissed as “cries for attention,” Lewis calls this sentiment a misconception as self-harm is often done in secret in attempt to cope with negative emotions.

The Study
To understand the role that online self-harm videos may play on behavior, researchers first performed Google searches of YouTube with the keywords “self-injury” and “self-harm.” They chose the 50 most-viewed videos featuring an actual person (sometimes performing the act) and the 50 most-viewed videos featuring descriptions and photographs of self-injury. Overall, the 100 selected videos had been viewed more than 2 million times.

From watching the videos, the research team was able to make a number of conclusions about their accessibility and popularity. Namely, that 80% of the content is open to general audiences, and that viewers generally rate the videos highly and often name them as “favorites.”

Other findings note that videos containing only descriptions and images generally receive the most views. Over half (53%) of the videos use a factual or educational tone, and 51% of the videos “conveyed a message of hopelessness” (these are not mutually exclusive).

Conclusions and Concerns
Based on the findings, Lewis and his team suggest that these non-suicidal, self-harm videos may normalize and reinforce the behavior for their audiences who can watch them over-and-over again. They say that many teens use the Internet for social interaction, and that these videos may be more pronounced with those who already self-harm.

Lewis cautions parents, mental health professionals, and doctors to be aware of this trend, so that they can talk openly to teens about self-injury and the triggering effects that watching the videos may have on them.

A spokesperson for YouTube told The Washington Post that they are looking into the feasibility of providing helpful resources or links for users searching for self-injury videos. As for the content itself, she notes that YouTube has policies against graphic content and content that encourages dangerous activity. The site relies on users to flag questionable videos, and YouTube reviews and removes those in violation.

Have you seen any of the videos in question?

Paddock, Catharine. “YouTube Self-Harm Videos Could Be Reinforcing Behavior.” 22 February 2011. <>

Tanner, Lindsey. “Study Finds Many Graphic YouTube Self-Harm Videos.” The Washington Post. 21 February 2011. Accessed 22 February 2011.

3 thoughts on “Alarming Social Media Trend: Self-Harm Videos

  1. Wow. That’s a scary number of views for those 100 videos. The pace of technology in conjunction with the amount of terrible content online really give me concern as my kids get older. They’re not yet to an age where I’d let them go online, but that’s not too far off. Thanks for sharing this info.

    1. Thanks, Wade and you’re welcome. It really is wild to learn what kind of stuff is out there on the web. I know I’d never have thought to look up something like this, but obviously many young people do and connect with it. It’s hard enough to be a teenager, let alone with this kind of stuff.

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