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BACKGROUND: Given recent moves to remove or blur self-harm imagery or content on the web, it is important to understand the impact of posting, viewing, and reposting self-harm images on young people. OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study is to systematically review research related to the emotional and behavioral impact on children and young people who view or share web-based self-harm-related videos or images. METHODS: We searched databases (including Embase, PsychINFO, and MEDLINE) from January 1991 to February 2019. Search terms were categorized into internet use, images nonspecific and specific to the internet, and self-harm and suicide. Stepwise screening against specified criteria and data extraction were completed by two independent reviewers. Eligible articles were quality assessed, and a narrative synthesis was conducted. RESULTS: A total of 19 independent studies (20 articles) were included. Of these, 4 studies focused on images, 10 (11 articles) on videos, and 5 on both. There were 4 quantitative, 9 qualitative, and 7 mixed methods articles. In total, 11 articles were rated as high quality. There has been an increase in graphic self-harm imagery over time. Potentially harmful content congregated on platforms with little moderation, anonymity, and easy search functions for images. A range of reactions and intentions were reported in relation to posting or viewing images of self-harm: from empathy, a sense of solidarity, and the use of images to give or receive help to potentially harmful ones suggesting new methods, normalization, and exacerbation of self-harm. Viewing images as an alternative to self-harm or a creative outlet were regarded in 2 studies as positive impacts. Reactions of anger, hostility, and ambivalence have been reported. There was some evidence of the role of imitation and reinforcement, driven partly by the number of comments and wound severity, but this was not supported by time series analyses. CONCLUSIONS: Although the results of this review support concern related to safety and exacerbation of self-harm through viewing images of self-harm, there may be potential for positive impacts in some of those exposed. Future research should evaluate the effectiveness and potential harms of current posting restrictions, incorporate user perspectives, and develop recovery-oriented content. Clinicians assessing distressed young people should ask about internet use, including access to self-harm images, as part of their assessment.

Original publication




Journal article


J Med Internet Res

Publication Date





internet, self-harm, social media, suicide, systematic review, Adolescent, Child, Humans, Internet, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide