Accessing self-harm content online, evidence suggests, signals a student is at psychological risk. How much is at risk, and whether that risk involves troubling thoughts or troubling actions, is a tougher question.
The headlines are sickeningly familiar:
“Suicide survivor told to kill herself by online trolls”
“Instagram owns up: ‘Not where we need to be’ on self-harm”
“TikTok linked to dozens of deaths worldwide, as teens post suicide videos and film killer stunts”
And now, a study confirms what many of us have observed first-hand: that our students are being routinely exposed to self-harm content online. Released by New Zealand’s independent online safety organisation Netsafe, its findings highlight the urgent need for school communities to address heightening online risks to students’ health and wellbeing. A further concern is that this study was released before the coronavirus pandemic, which experts warn will likely have a significant impact on student mental health and wellbeing.
In Netsafe's study of over two thousand students, researchers found that among 13 to 17-year-olds:
- One in five had accessed self-harm material
- 17% had viewed “how to suicide” guides
- Over a third had seen violent images online
- 27% had viewed “hateful content”
- 15% had searched for “ways to be very thin”
Even more alarming, statistics from around the English-speaking world confirm a massive uptick in the incidence of self-injury among young people - especially girls.
In Australia, the number of young people seeking help for suicide and self-harm doubled between 2000 and 2015, according to a report from the Australian Health Ministry. One in 10 young Australians had engaged in some form of self-harm. Among girls aged 16-17, the figure is a shocking one in four.
It has been observed that, effectively, every high school teacher is in contact with a self-harmer every day.
At the most extreme end of self-inflicted injury is suicide. Recent figures show around eight children and young people take their own lives each week in Australia - a ten-year high.
What are the signs of self-harm?
Signs and symptoms of self-injury, according to the Mayo Clinic, may include:
- Scars, often in patterns
- Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks or other wounds
- Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn
- Keeping sharp objects on hand
- Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
- Frequent reports of accidental injury
- Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
- Behavioural and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability
- Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
How is “self-harm” defined?
According to the Mayo Clinic, self-harm or self-injury is the act of deliberately harming one’s own body, typically by cutting, burning, self-hitting, piercing the skin or inserting objects under the skin, as a way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and/or frustration.
Self-harmers do not usually intend to suicide, but the act of self-injury may be a precursor to “more serious and even fatal self-aggressive actions.”
"Many parents don't realise how abundant and easy to access content featuring or referencing self-harm is on social media. Young people will often use social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram as places to document their mental health journey, including showing incidents involving self-harm or even hospitalisation." Jordan Foster, clinical psychologist & cyber expert
Does viewing or posting self-harm content online lead to self-harm behaviour offline?
The short answer is we simply don’t know.
But there is a growing consensus that seeking out such material online is a cry for help.
Notes Elliot Taylor, executive director of the NZ-based mental health project Live for Tomorrow, “These are young people who are experiencing distress in their lives and they don’t have acceptable avenues to get help,” he said.
“But what they do have is an Instagram account that they’re really familiar with. They use it every day, it’s the room they hang out in.
“The real issue is not that young people are searching for distressing content,” he said. “The real issue that young people are distressed and they don’t have anywhere to access proper help, and so they post it online.”
Of special concern in the Netsafe study were the 11% of participants who said that, when they’d seen something upsetting online, they hadn’t spoken to anyone about it. This was the highest-risk group, according to Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker.
What are some warning signs of suicide?
According to the Black Dog Institute, warning signs might include:
- Sleep changes
- Loss of interest in things
- Irritability and moodiness
- Decline in academic work performance
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Changes in eating
- Excessive alcohol or other drug use
- Mentioning or joking about death and dying
What can schools do to help?
Mental health concerns among Australian and New Zealand youth have risen sharply over the past seven years. Yet, “strategies to prevent youth self-harm, suicide and rates of depression don’t seem to be working enormously well – because rates continue to go up,” notes Dr Paul Badcock, senior lecturer at the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.
Psychologist and self-harm expert Dr Sarah Stanford points to the fact that suicide and self-harm remain “taboo topics in schools” - perhaps on the mistaken belief that talking about the problem will encourage it among the young and impressionable. She cites emerging evidence that school-based self-harm and suicide prevention programs reduce dangerous thoughts or actions while improving knowledge and increasing help-seeking behaviour. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is open conversation and education that could form a key part of a school’s response.
Why do young people self-harm?
The experts at Lifeline explain that self-harm may be used to:
- Deal with or stop negative emotions or pain, such as feeling sad, angry, upset, guilty or scared
- Release tension or a build-up of emotions
- Relieve feelings of loneliness or isolation
- Punish themselves for something they’ve done, or something perceived as their fault
- Feel “alive” or “real” or combat feelings of numbness
- Feel more in control of their life
- Communicate to people that you need some support when you feel unable to use words
Putting technology into the hands of those who need it
Accessing self-harm content online, evidence suggests, signals a student is at psychological risk. How much at risk, and whether that risk involves troubling thoughts or troubling actions, is a tougher question.
However, the ability to identify those students who show a pattern of searching, viewing or posting to self-harm sites is a key way for schools to identify moments of care and help address this wellbeing issue. Implementing technology to provide both visibility of student online behaviour and meaningful reporting of that behaviour including at-risk students, is the first step to an early-warning system for schools.
The second step involves ensuring the technology can sit in the hands of those providing the care - such as school leadership and pastoral care/wellbeing staff. Empowering the staff best suited to delivering care with timely insights, helps ensure the best possible support of student wellbeing.
Linewize's powerful tools can flag at-risk student users with accuracy, and deliver that information to wellbeing staff, making it possible for schools to provide appropriate support before more serious issues arise - while also supporting parents with cyber-safety products, education and resources.