YouTube provides easy access to videos of almost anything, but what is the impact on viewers, especially younger viewers, when "anything" includes hundreds of photos, video clips and montages of self-harming behaviors such as cutting and self-mutilation?
In a study that analyzed the videos, Canadian researchers found that the 100 most popular videos portraying self-harm on YouTube have been viewed more than 2 million times and selected as "favorite" more than 12,000 times, triggering concern over what kind of impact the sharing and viewing of these videos may be having on those at risk for self-injurious behavior.
"We found that very few videos actually encourage self-injury," says the lead author on the study, Stephen Lewis of the University of Guelph in Ontario. "Most were neutral or hopeful for overcoming this issue. But these findings also speak to the possibility of a few risks.
"Some videos may work to reinforce self-injury behavior or serve as a trigger for self-harm," Lewis adds. "It might foster communities where self-injury is more normal and [so is to] not always urge people to seek help."
In fact, concerned for the potential risks, YouTube contacted researchers and has since removed the videos they considered inappropriate content, Lewis says.
Self-injury behavior, which, in the videos, most often took the form of self-cutting, is known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) because while it involves the deliberate destruction of one's own body tissue, it is not necessarily driven by a desire for suicide. Often, self-harmers report that cutting is a form of coping with emotional pain and that the act of inflicting pain on themselves provides powerful momentary relief from mental distress, says Kim Gratz, director of personality disorders research at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Though it's hard to gauge the prevalence of this behavior, Gratz says that studies find that between 17 and 40 percent of college students admit to committing self harm and between 15 and 30 percent of high school students do.
While research on self-harm and the influence of the Internet is fairly new, some are questioning whether the proliferation of self-harm videos, websites, and message boards -- even those which are somewhat neutral in their portrayal of self harm -- may be as dangerous as the many pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia internet forums that have been condemned by psychiatrists in recent years.
"It's hard to tell what role these videos and websites might play. Depending on the nature of the video it could be incredibly helpful ... [by] providing support and directing people to help, or they might glorify the practice and overlook the downsides. Honestly, I think that's the problem with the Internet [with things like this] -- it can be both."
Monday's research looked at highly viewed videos that either were character-based, meaning they featured a real person speaking, or non-character, which usually featured montages of photos and text set to music.
It found that, at the time of the study in December 2009, 90 percent of videos concerning self harm featured photographs of self injuries and 28 percent actually featured people inflicting injuries on themselves.
Less than half of these videos provided any warning concerning the graphic nature of the images or the risk of "triggering" self-harm behavior in those who had a tendency towards it.