Viewing self-harm pictures on-line – dangerous and protecting?


Given elevated scrutiny of the net world and the potential for hurt, a targeted dialogue of how viewing self-harm and suicide-related pictures on-line is prone to influence is overdue. This isn’t a lot concerning the content material of a picture per se – though that’s essential – however considering in better element about how viewing that picture in a specific on-line house impacts us, and figuring out potential mechanisms that account for our totally different responses to visible content material. Are there implications from a extra nuanced understanding of how we reply to photographs for scientific observe or legislative provision for on-line security?

Earlier work has outlined the potential for hurt when posting and accessing self-harm and suicide-related content material on-line (Marchant et al., 2017; Arendt et al., 2019; Hawton et al., 2020) and cautions that viewing and interacting with such content material can result in a rise in self-harm and suicidal-behaviours. Nevertheless, it’s also in on-line areas that people could make sense of their very own ideas and behaviours, really feel a way of belongingness, and search and/or supply help (Lavis & Winter, 2020).

Right here, Dr Karima Susi and colleagues (2023) look at the potential influence and underlying psychological mechanisms that would clarify the connection between publicity to visible content material and influence, or which could contribute to a viewer’s change in have an effect on, cognition, or behaviour. Their intention is to contribute necessary context for our discussions round retaining younger individuals protected on-line.

Current evidence in the field are of mixed nature, as viewing self-harm and suicide-related images online can be harmful and protective.

Present proof within the discipline are of combined nature, as viewing self-harm and suicide-related pictures on-line may be dangerous and protecting.


A complete literature search was performed utilizing CINAHL, Cochrane Library, EMBASE, HMIC, MEDLINE, PscyArticles, PsyINFO, PubMed, Scopus, Sociological Abstracts and Net of Science. This included self-harm associated, picture and social media phrases. Supplementary searches had been performed utilizing Google Scholar and quotation looking of included evaluations.

Included had been peer-reviewed, empirical research in English presenting proof regarding the viewing of self-harm pictures/video of self-injury/self-poisoning and the place self-harm pictures appeared on-line or on social media and the place findings associated to the potential influence of, or responses to, viewing self-harm pictures. The evaluation adhered to PRISMA pointers and was pre-registered. The primary writer extracted knowledge for all papers. The second writer independently extracted knowledge regarding key domains and people open to subjective judgement from all papers.

Given heterogeneity of the methodology and findings, a story synthesis was performed to ‘inform the story’ of the qualitative and quantitative findings collectively. This concerned synthesising and grouping knowledge into:

  • areas of dangerous or protecting influence;
  • underlying mechanisms (processes that would clarify the connection between publicity and influence, or which will have contributed to a change in have an effect on, cognition or behaviour).

A framework was devised via consensus to document impacts (dangerous or protecting) throughout eight areas, specifically self-harm behaviour; engagement behaviours corresponding to sharing, commenting or liking; social comparability; self-harm id; social connection; emotion; cognition; and physiological results. Potential mechanisms, conceptualised utilizing definitions in associated literature, recorded implicit or specific reference to: assortative relating, aversion, normalisation, disgust, emotional dysregulation and regulation, habituation, social optimistic reinforcement, priming, social comparability, social integration and regulation and social studying.


15 research had been included (7 quantitative, 7 qualitative, and one mixed-methods). All besides one had been cross-sectional research. Proof of influence of publicity to self-harm pictures was by way of questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, evaluation of feedback alongside pictures or patterns of posting and reposting/reblogging of pictures, or by measuring publicity in an experimental design. Research originated from Canada (4), USA (3), China (2), Germany (2), UK (2), Australia (1) and Sweden (1). The vast majority of members had been white and feminine and aged between 14 and 27 years. Nevertheless, demographic info was not persistently reported. Most research reported in relation to at least one on-line platform together with Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, San Weibo, YouTube, in addition to on-line boards and the web extra broadly. Examine high quality ranged from excessive (8 research) medium (5 research) to low (2 research).

Areas of influence

All 15 research discovered potential dangerous impacts. Key findings included:

  • Self-harm behaviours: influence resulted from publicity to photographs which normalised and triggered self-harm leading to a rise in frequency and/or severity of behaviour. There was proof of imitative behaviour, and that pictures had been deliberately sought to set off the best temper for self-harm or potentiate behaviour.
  • Engagement behaviours, social comparability and id: self-harm was inspired via sharing and commenting on pictures. Depictions of wounds, or extra extreme self-harm, elicited extra feedback. Publishing and reblogging might normalise self-harm as an efficient coping technique, or elicit optimistic reinforcement by way of admiration, encouragement, empathy. A aggressive mindset was described and encouragement of a self-harm id.
  • Social connection: quick connection, validation and help might result in unintended penalties. For instance, pictures and feedback shared to assist others really feel much less alone portrayed self-harm as a suitable coping mechanism or contributed to validating or sustaining self-harm by sharing concepts round strategies. A want to proceed receiving help might perpetuate behaviour. Social help might inadvertently discourage offline help searching for.
  • Emotional influence: Graphic pictures had been discovered to be emotionally disturbing and probably triggering, instigating melancholy, shock, grief, disgust, isolation, hostility, empathy, or concern. In comparison with phrases, pictures had been discovered to be extra impactful and led to a better decline in temper, notably in females.
  • Cognitive and physiological influence: Elevated urges or inspiration to self-harm led to elevated suicidal ideation and hopelessness and evoked psychological imagery, corresponding to imagining how it will really feel to self-harm in the identical method. One examine discovered proof of quickened coronary heart price or ’rush’ in response which might set off self-harm.

9 research reported probably protecting impacts from viewing on-line content material. These included:

  • Self-harm behaviours: viewing pictures served as a proxy for self-harm thereby lowering behaviour, a minimum of within the quick time period, or may very well be used strategically to keep away from extra extreme self-harm. For some viewing self-harm pictures discouraged self-harm acts probably by prompting emotions of aversion or disgust.
  • Engagement behaviours, social comparability and id: In some circumstances extremely reblogged pictures included messages of hope and restoration, and feedback on pictures inspired uploaders to hunt assist. Viewing, creating and sharing pictures had a optimistic influence by way of selling self-expression, id and restoration narratives.
  • Social connection: posting of pictures inspired on-line peer-support that may very well be lacking offline, helped people to establish with others via self-disclosure, inspired social connection and validation, and lessened isolation. This might mitigate urges to self-harm.
  • Emotional influence: viewing pictures promoted a optimistic change in emotional state, vicariously offering aid, consolation or a way of calm which meant self-harm may very well be prevented. Concern and disgust responses had been additionally protecting.
  • Cognitive and physiological influence: anticipatory and vicarious aid responses alleviated urges to self-harm. The adrenaline rush from viewing pictures additionally substituted for self-harm.


  • Dangerous mechanisms: These mostly implied included normalisation, assortative relating, social studying, social optimistic reinforcement and emotional dysregulation. Moreover, evaluation authors recognized social integration and regulation, corresponding to sharing concepts, cognitive priming (together with psychological imagery), habituation, decrease aversion to self-harm stimuli and comparability and competitiveness.
  • Protecting mechanisms: These implied had been normalisation, social integration and regulation, social optimistic reinforcement, emotional regulation, aversion, and self-reflection. Moreover, evaluation authors recognized assortative relating, priming and social comparability.
Images can trigger powerful emotions which could increase the likelihood of engaging in self-harm related behaviours.

Pictures can set off highly effective feelings which might enhance the probability of participating in self-harm associated behaviours.


The examine highlights varied dangerous and useful impacts related to viewing self-harm imagery, signalling the idiosyncratic nature of response and the significance of contemplating the contextual and dynamic nature of interplay. The authors counsel that mechanisms recognized within the evaluation present perception into motivations concerned in viewing self-harm pictures on-line, corresponding to emotional dysregulation and social connection.

Drawing on the findings of this study, clinicians should routinely assess young people’s engagement with self-harm and suicide-related content online.

Drawing on the findings of this evaluation, clinicians ought to routinely assess younger individuals’s engagement with self-harm and suicide-related content material on-line.

Strengths and limitations

That is solidly executed evaluation which follows a rigorous course of. Inclusion of worldwide research is a energy (though the out there proof stays homogeneously largely white and feminine), and each qualitative and quantitative knowledge had been included for breadth. High quality and threat of bias had been appraised utilizing related Medical Appraisal Abilities Programme checklists in accordance with standard cut-offs. Appraisal was accomplished independently by two reviewers, with disagreements resolved by dialogue to succeed in consensus. Interrater reliability utilizing weighted kappa calculations was glorious.

Up to now there was restricted crucial engagement with the mechanisms via which interactions with visible self-harm content material on-line confer their influence, and little examination of visible imagery along with verbal content material. As such the main target of this examine is novel and channels necessary discussions, corresponding to an examination of contagion mechanisms.

There are necessary limitations to contemplate. Members represented a broadly homogenous group of primarily white females. That being mentioned, safety of anonymity in research meant that for a big proportion of the information demographic and contextual info was not out there. As such there stay questions over potential moderators of the viewing expertise corresponding to age, prior historical past with self-harm or different psychological well being points, whether or not the viewing was intentional, for the way lengthy and in what context or time viewing occurred, or if pictures had been self-generated. Additional analysis exploring these components might assist to elucidate inconsistencies in response. The research relied primarily on self-report and had been largely cross-sectional and so causation can’t be inferred. On the entire, potential mechanisms recognized within the analysis weren’t straight or explicitly investigated however had been largely implied by cited examine authors or had been recognized by the evaluation authors. Interpretation was reached with consensus, however nonetheless was subjective.

Included studies reporting demographics had a predominantly white and female sample, leaving questions about the wider population.

The research included on this evaluation had a predominantly white and feminine pattern, which leaves many questions on the broader inhabitants.

Implications for observe

Younger individuals who current to companies ought to be routinely requested about on-line self-harm picture viewing behaviour; clinicians or different frontline workers working with younger individuals ought to concentrate on the potential for hurt. The eight areas of influence recognized might information routine scientific evaluation. Nevertheless, the findings clearly level to the complicated, fluid and particular person nature of interplay and response, and that there are probably necessary features not least by way of social connection, help and restoration that shouldn’t be neglected. The truth is, boundaries between optimistic and unfavourable impacts may be blurred. For whom are they dangerous or useful? When? Why? All impacts and capabilities ought to be explored in observe with an adolescent to establish vulnerabilities and protecting components.

The problem of making protected on-line areas is to take steps to mitigate threat with out stopping entry to the advantages. The analysis has necessary implications for the regulation of on-line communities on condition that sharing of consumer generated pictures between people is complicated. A better weighting of proof factors to dangerous over useful influence from participating with user-generated content material on-line. Nonetheless, the findings clearly level to the complicated, fluid and particular person nature of interplay and response and point out a necessity for extra analysis on this space to sharpen choice making round coverage, observe and safeguarding.

A robust take-away from this evaluation is that pictures can set off highly effective feelings and should relate to a change in cognition, have an effect on and behavior. Findings indicated that viewing visible imagery can evoke psychological imagery. The exploration of the influence, operate and mechanisms of visible imagery logically extends past actual perceived content material in on-line areas to psychological imagery, desires, flashbacks. Just lately, Lawrence et al. (2023) discovered a excessive prevalence of psychological imagery of suicidal and non-suicidal self-injury amongst scientific samples which may be vivid, sensible, and preoccupying, and which can confer a combined emotional and physiological regulation operate. They spotlight the necessity to suppose past the verbal when assessing a person’s cognitions about self-harm behaviour and ideation and to contemplate the amplification which might happen when cognitions are skilled within the thoughts’s eye. There are necessary issues too for broader experimental work which pulls on visible self-harm stimulus publicity and evaluative conditioning within the growth of interventions to scale back self-harm (Franklin et al., 2016), or the event of immersive intervention work within the Digital Actuality house.

Accountable Analysis and Innovation (RRI) and Affected person and Public Involvement and Engagement is beneficial as commonplace in all work to make sure moral, acceptable, and significant analysis. There may be rising recognition that responses to user-generated content material are context-bound and should change over time, corresponding to following repeated publicity, and there’s a want to handle this additional. Just lately, for instance, Home et al. (2022) described the interaction between particular person, place, and content material in driving response to self-harm content material on-line. Nuanced discussions exploring the character, operate and context of on-line interplay with highly effective visible content material about self-harm are wanted to account for the possible dynamic and idiosyncratic relationship with people.

Conclusions drawn from research evidence to inform policy and practice must account for nuances in response to suicide and self-harm online content.

Conclusions drawn from analysis proof to tell coverage and observe should account for nuances in response to suicide and self-harm on-line content material.

Assertion of pursuits

All authors conduct analysis within the discipline of suicide prevention. No conflicts of curiosity to declare with the paper reviewed on this weblog.


Main paper

Susi, Okay., Glover-Ford, F., Stewart, A., Knowles Bevis, R., & Hawton, Okay. (2023). Analysis evaluation: Viewing self-harm pictures on the web and social media platforms: systematic evaluation of the influence and related psychological mechanisms. Journal of Youngster Psychology and Psychiatry.

Different references

Marchant, A., Hawton, Okay., Stewart, A., Montgomery, P., Singaravelu, V., Lloyd, Okay., … & John, A.(2017). A scientific evaluation of the connection between web use, self-harm and suicidal behaviour in younger individuals: The nice, the unhealthy and the unknown. PLoS One, 12, e0181722.

Hawton, Okay., Hill, N.T.M., Gould, M., John, A., Lascelles, Okay., & Robinson, J. (2020). Clustering of suicides in kids and adolescents. The Lancet Youngster and Adolescent Well being, 4, 5867.

Arendt, F., Scherr, S., & Romer, D. (2019). Results of publicity to self-harm on social media: Proof from a two-wave panel examine amongst younger adults. New Media and Society, 21, 24222442.

Franklin JC, Huang X, Bastidas D. Digital actuality suicide: Growth of a translational method for learning suicide causes. Behav Res Ther. 2019 Sep;120:103360. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.12.013.

Home A O. Social media, self-harm, and suicide: we ought to be selling analysis knowledgeable choice making about how and what to managedoi:10.1136/bmj.o2583

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