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Images of Self-Harm on Instagram Can Lead to Similar Behavior


43% of respondents said they had seen self-harm content on Instagram at least once.


Nearly 33% of young adults exposed to self-harm posts on Instagram said they performed self-harming behavior as a consequence of seeing the content, according to a study published in the journal New Media & Society.

The finding comes at a time when researchers and innovators are hard at work finding ways to use social media to help treat mental health or supplement traditional care. But investigators have highlighted the negative effects of these platforms time and again, spotlighting a potential threat to population and public health. Together, these conflicting forces might suggest one path forward for health systems and physicians curious about leveraging social media: Wait.

Self-Harm and Instagram

In the most recent study, researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Vienna in Austria and the University of Leuven in Belgium found that 43% of those surveyed had seen a post on Instagram at least once, while more than half had seen more than one.

A majority of those exposed to the self-harm posts (80%) said they encountered them by accident, and 59% reported being emotionally disturbed by the content.

“The findings suggest that whether the Instagram posts instigate self-harm on their own or not, they do reach vulnerable young people and may play a role in encouraging similar behavior in those who are exposed to them,” said Dan Romer, Ph.D., study author and research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The research team investigated the relationship between exposure to self-harm on Instagram and subsequent self-harm and suicidality-related outcomes in young adults.

Researchers conducted a two-wave survey on more than 700 young adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 years old. Women made up 80% of the participants.

The research team distributed the survey in May and June 2018, before Instagram announced that it would look to reduce images of graphic self-harm.

In the first wave of the survey, the researchers measured exposure to self-harm content on Instagram. The research team measured all self-harm and suicidality-related concepts in both waves.

To measure exposure to self-harm on Instagram, the researchers asked, “How often, if ever, have you seen a post on Instagram showing someone who intentionally harms him- or herself, for example, by cutting? Was it more than once, just once, or never?”

A large portion (45%) of the respondents said they had never seen self-harm content on Instagram, while 18% had seen the posts just once and 25% had seen content more than once.

Only 20% of those who had seen the content said they intentionally searched for it.

“Accidental exposure to self-harm content on Instagram was of central relevance for the majority of participants who were exposed to self-harm,” the study authors wrote.

The research team asked, “As a consequence of seeing this self-harm content on Instagram, did you ever perform the same (or a very similar) self-harming behavior?” to measure whether users thought the exposure content elicited imitative effects in themselves. While 66% indicated “no,” the study authors found it surprisingly high that 32% indicated “yes.”

The researchers found that people who reported seeing self-harm images on Instagram at the first interview were more likely than those who didn’t to report their own self-harm at the second interview.

And of those exposed to the content, nearly 60% said they have thought about how it would feel if they did the same thing to themselves.

Predicting Self-Harm

Exposure to self-harm on Instagram on the first survey predicted higher levels of suicidal ideation and risk for suicide on the second.

“Media researchers, suicide experts and parents have all expressed concern in the past about this explicit content on Instagram,” said Florian Arendt, Ph.D., lead author and health communication professor at the University of Vienna in Austria. “Our results provide evidence that this concern is justified.”

Is Social Media Good or Bad for Mental Health?

The study is just the latest to show the negative effects of social media on a user’s well-being.

Last year, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that negative experiences on social media strongly and consistently resulted in higher depressive symptoms.The research team found that every 10% increase in negative experiences was associated with a 20% increase in reported depressive symptoms.

But the platforms can also be leveraged to help people deal with emotional crises.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah found that participants of the subreddit for depression increased positive language and decreased in negative language over time. Participants’ emotional states became more positive.

Another study analyzed 1.3 million tweets and created a machine-learning model that can predict which Twitter users are affected by attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

A research team from The National Centre for Youth Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia, developed #ChatSafe guidelines to steer young people to properly discuss suicide with their peers on social media. #ChatSafe urges individuals to speak about recovery rather than sharing graphic images of self-harm or a suicide attempt, which emphasize the negative sides of their story.

Other startups, such as Wisdo, aim to encourage users to map themselves to where they are during negative life moments. Wisdo connects people who are experiencing similar circumstances to create a group of support.

Some experts suggest that funding and research hours are needed to truly come up with a

scalable solution.

Despite initiatives on existing social media networks, researchers have said health effects might only come from a social media platform that’s dedicated to helping people deal with mental health issues.

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