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Reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this week, a study of YouTube videos featuring “nonsuicidal self-injury” – most often cutting – reveals that these videos have a wide audience. Researchers found a total of ~5,000 self-mutilation-themed videos on YouTube. The top 100 videos were viewed over 2 million times. About 80% of these videos were freely available for public viewing, with no protection nor security level. Most also did not warn of graphic content. The same videos were rated positively by viewers, and selected as favorites over 12K times.
The doctors conducting the study expressed concern that the videos tone and apparent popularity “may foster normalization” of these acts and “may reinforce the behavior.”
Self-mutilation, most often cutting, is a wide-spread phenomenon among teens. According to the study’s authors, about 14-24% of youth and young adults engage in this behavior, clinically known as “nonsuicidal self-injury” or NSSI.
CNN also reported on this study. CNN’s mental health expert, Dr. Charles Raison of Emory University, describes NSSI as a “young person’s affliction.” He further comments that “one in ten will kill themselves” and that “a lot of people will outgrow this behavior.”
However, not all experts view Internet sharing of the cutting experience as negative. Time Magazine reports that Marilee Strong, author of “A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain,” sees the YouTube videos as a kind of online support group. “It’s been a huge resource for people who have this secret shame that drives them to cut,” she says. “To be able to reach out to other people and have virtual support groups has been a tremendous healing tool.”
Psychologist Tracy Knight, an associate professor at Western Illinois University, also sees the potential for YouTube videos showing self-harm to have a positive impact. “It makes it open for social discussion … in a way that was not possible when it was a secret,” he is reported as saying.
This echoes comments made by online child protection and social media expert Anne Collier on this blog, when she commented that “social media are really helping us by making those social dynamics, which have been present all along, more visible, more visible to adults than they’ve ever been. What we see there can be disturbing, but it can also be helpful – for getting to the bottom of what’s going on in peer groups, gathering evidence, research, and so on. This can help solve relational problems going on offline as well as online.”
At a minimum, parents and mental health professionals should be aware of the YouTube videos. In their “Conclusions,” the study’s authors state their concerns that “normalization” of self-injury behaviors could trigger other young people and encourage the behavior. They also suggest that YouTube should post links to positive resource sites along with videos, when keywords like “self-injury” or “self-harm” are searched on their site.
YouTube has reportedly removed or blocked most of the 100 videos cited by AAP in their study.