The evidence, reviewed by researchers from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, indicates that viewing such images usually causes harm, though the findings also highlighted the complexity of the issue.
In all 15 research studies reviewed for the paper, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, there was evidence that looking at images of self-harm had harmful effects. This included an increase in self-harm, such as through triggering urges to self-harm, and enabling social connections with others who are self-harming, which can reinforce an individual’s personal identity as someone who self-harms.
However, nine of the studies also indicated some ‘protective’ effects for some young people, including reduction in urges to self-harm for some, social connection with other people, and providing and receiving support.
The study follows recent cases where viewing images related to self-harm and suicide has been associated with deaths by suicide of young people, leading to calls for legislation such as through the UK’s Online Safety Bill, currently going through Parliament. But until now, there has been little research evidence in this area.