Self-Injury YouTube Videos May Encourage Behaviour Among Teens, Study Finds

February 21, 2011 - News Release

The alarming trend of teens posting YouTube videos depicting cutting and other forms of self-injury could be normalizing and even reinforcing the behaviour, according to a new University of Guelph study.

A team of researchers led by U of G professor Stephen Lewis are the first to study the impact, especially on youth, of the most popular YouTube videos illustrating self-injury.

The researchers found that self-injury videos may lead vulnerable teens to harm themselves and to view this behaviour as acceptable and sometimes difficult to overcome.

"Many youth who self-injure may go online to find support, but at the same time they may see videos that could be harmful if self-injury is depicted as typical behaviour or if viewing these videos triggers the behaviour," said the psychology professor.

Between 14 to 24 per cent of youth and young adults have self-injured at least once, said Lewis, who worked on the study with PhD student Jill St. Denis as well as McGill University professor Nancy Heath and master's student Rick Noble.

"It's a misconception that people do it for attention when it's often secretive," said Lewis. "Teenagers typically self-injure to cope with negative emotions."

Cutting was the most common form of self-injury depicted in the videos included in the study, which was published today in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers selected the top 50 YouTube videos depicting an actual person, including some showing live acts of self-injury. They also examined the top 50 videos that did not have a person on camera but contained only photos and text about self-injury. A majority included graphic photos of self-injury.

These videos had been viewed more than two million times in total.

Most of the videos either offered factual information about self-injury or conveyed a message of hopelessness.

Videos containing only photographs and text were generally considered more somber, and received more views and comments, than those depicting an actual person, said Lewis.

"These videos are worrisome because the nature of the images and tone may elicit an urge in those already at risk of self-injury to harm themselves, and may send the message that self-injury is acceptable or that there is little point in seeking help."

Although some of the videos viewed had warnings that they may trigger self-injury, a majority did not.

These findings reveal the potential impact online video sharing can have on those who self-injure, particularly youth who engage in online social interaction, said Lewis.

Youth generally use the Internet more for social interaction than does any other segment of the population, and this may be especially pronounced for those who self-injure, he added.

"We have to educate mental health workers and medical professionals working with youth who self-injure about this phenomenon of video sharing among teens. Right now they might not think to ask youth about their Internet activity, but it's information that could be important to integrate into a person's assessment and treatment plan."

Learning about this activity is also important for parents so that they can have more open discussions about self-injury with their teenagers and discuss the risks involved in viewing these types of videos online, he said.

Besides examining how youth respond to these videos, Lewis plans to find ways to reach and help young people who go online to share their experiences with self-injury.

Prof. Stephen Lewis
Department of Psychology
519-824-4120, Ext. 53299

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or

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