Online self-harm content might provide peer support to young people

Last updated 14 January 2024
girl in room with laptop

Youth today find themselves living in an era of social media, with easy access to a wide range of social networking sites. Unfortunately, emerging evidence suggests that some social technologies might cause more harm than good to some young people’s mental health.(1,2) Specifically, concern about online self-harm content and its influence on young people is growing, with calls for influential online platforms to tackle this problem by removing self-harm posts.(3)

Now, Anna Lavis and Rachel Winter have published their findings from an ethnographic study that aimed to understand why young people might view online self-harm content and how they engage with it. The researchers collected and analyzed >10,000 posts and >36,000 comments on social media between 2018 and 2019. They also conducted semi-structured interviews with 10 young people who have engaged with self-harm content online.

Lavis et al. made a striking finding: many young people engage with online self-harm content to better understand their actions, find peer support and seek help. Indeed, many young people who are accessing online content regarding self-harm are already self-harming and are looking for support and understanding that avoids the stigma found offline both in services and society more widely.

“These findings demonstrate the need for a franker consideration of how we respond to self-harm, both in services and as a society”, explains Lavis. “Rather than focusing on the impact of social media on young people, there is a need to listen to their reasons for turning to social media for support with their self-harm. It is against a background of offline stigma and support gaps that online peer support takes on importance; this is crucial for understanding the positive impact that online content, even that habitually framed as ‘graphic’ and thus ‘harmful’, may have on a young person”.

Based on their findings, the researchers believe that we should move beyond a model of contagion, which assumes that online self-harm content encourages or causes acts of self-harm. Instead, we should consider the potential benefits as well as other negative consequences of online self-harm content. “Moves to eradicate self-harm content risk being harmful”, says Lavis. “As such, any approaches must be underpinned by evidence that places the priorities of young people themselves at its heart”.

 Referring to

Lavis, A. & Winter, R. (2020), #Online harms or benefits? An ethnographic analysis of the positives and negatives of peer-support around self-harm on social media. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatr. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13245.


1Kelly, Y. et al. (2019), Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. EClinicalMedicine. 4, 59 –68. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2018.12.005

2Field, T. (2018). Cyberbullying: A narrative review. J. Addict. Ther. Res. 2, 010–027. doi: 10.29328/journal.jatr.1001007.

3Lumley, S. (2019, 26th January) Matt Hancock tells social media giants to remove suicide and self-harm material. The Telegraph, Available from: ws/2019/01/26/matt-hancock-tells-social-media-giantsremove-suicide-self-harm/


Ethnography: the systematic study of individual cultures in terms of their customs, habits, and mutual differences.