The Dark Side of YouTube

February 22, 2011
Kate Gamble

Videos featuring and demonstrating self-injury in teens are widely available on YouTube, and may be normalizing or even reinforcing the behavior.

The alarming trend of teens posting YouTube videos depicting cutting and other forms of self-injury could be normalizing and even reinforcing the behavior, according to a new study from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

A team of researchers led by Stephen Lewis, PhD, is the first to study the impact of the most popular YouTube videos illustrating self-injury, which is defined as destruction of one’s own body tissue, for example by cutting or burning. The researchers found that self-injury videos may lead vulnerable teens to harm themselves and to view this behavior as acceptable and sometimes difficult to overcome.

"Many youth who self-injure may go online to find support, but at the same time they may see videos that could be harmful if self-injury is depicted as typical behavior or if viewing these videos triggers the behavior," said Lewis in a press release.

Between 14 to 24% of youth and young adults have self-injured at least once, he said. “It's a misconception that people do it for attention when it's often secretive. Teenagers typically self-injure to cope with negative emotions."

Cutting was the most common form of self-injury depicted in the videos included in the study, which is published in Pediatrics.

The researchers selected the top 50 YouTube videos depicting an actual person, including some showing live acts of self-injury. They also examined the top 50 videos that did not have a person on camera but contained only photos and text about self-injury. A majority included graphic photos of self injury.

Most of the videos—which had been viewed more than two million times in total—either offered factual information about self-injury or conveyed a message of hopelessness. Videos containing only photographs and text were generally considered more somber, and received more views and comments, than those depicting an actual person.

"These videos are worrisome because the nature of the images and tone may elicit an urge in those already at risk of self-injury to harm themselves, and may send the message that self-injury is acceptable or that there is little point in seeking help,” said Lewis.

Although some of the videos viewed had warnings that they may trigger self-injury, a majority did not.

These findings reveal the potential impact online video sharing can have on those who self-injure, particularly youth who engage in online social interaction, said Lewis.

Youth generally use the Internet more for social interaction than does any other segment of the population, and this may be especially pronounced for those who self-injure, he added.

"We have to educate mental health workers and medical professionals working with youth who self-injure about this phenomenon of video sharing among teens. Right now they might not think to ask youth about their Internet activity but its information that could be important to integrate into a person's assessment and treatment plan."

Learning about this activity is also important for parents so that they can have more open discussions about self-injury with their teenagers and discuss the risks involved in viewing these types of videos online, he said.