Many newspapers and media outlets are picking up the new Pediatrics study that looked for “self injury” or “self harm” videos on YouTube and were surprised that they actually found them. I’m not sure “study” is the correct word for what the researchers did here, since millions of people each day perform similar “research” (by typing these keywords into YouTube).
From a completely descriptive study — e.g., research that is simply observing what the researchers find online — the researchers nonetheless draw the following conclusion: “The nature of nonsuicidal self-injury videos on YouTube may foster normalization of nonsuicidal self-injury and may reinforce the behavior through regular viewing of nonsuicidal self-injury–themed videos.” This isn’t a conclusion they can draw from their data, of course.
Alternative explanations abound. Could it be that a teen’s peer group has already been engaging in such behavior for years? Or that a person is unlikely to try something just because they see it on TV? After all, how many of us have gone out and killed someone after seeing hundreds (if not thousands) of murders regularly depicted on American television? Does this somehow “normalize” murder? Isn’t is equally as likely that teenagers are sharing mutual experiences, because for some minority of teens, these kinds of behaviors are completely normal already?
Furthermore, the researchers offer this helpful advice, “Professionals working with youth and young adults who enact nonsuicidal self-injury need to be aware of the scope and nature of nonsuicidal self-injury on YouTube.”
YouTube videos are the veritable tip of the iceberg when it comes to these kinds of things. You want self-injury resources? There are online communities with tens of thousands of members who post and share graphic images of their cutting behavior every day. There are video sites far less mainstream than YouTube where you can watch as graphic self-harm videos as you can stomach.
This is not a new phenomenon, either. These sites — and people turning to the Internet to share behaviors that others view as abnormal or somehow unreasonable — have been around for over a decade. Self-injury is not new. Using the Internet to share and gain support for these kinds of behaviors isn’t particularly new either. I guess what’s new here is that some researchers thought it would be nice to study once small aspect of the Internet and report on those observations. I think that’s great, but let’s put it into some context…
Representative Sample of Self-Harm Videos?
We all have heard of the “long tail” in search. This is the phenomenon where a great deal of a website’s traffic comes not from the most commonly viewed pages or resources, but from thousands of smaller pages viewed only a few times each. The same is true with YouTube. There are tens of millions of videos on YouTube alone; other video sharing sites have millions upon millions more. So while it’s fine to look only at the top 50 or 100 videos (as these researchers did), one’s findings from such an arbitrary selection may not actually be representative of the entire population of self-harm videos.
Look at it another way. Imagine an alien with no understanding of human culture comes down to Earth and spends one week viewing only the top 50 videos on YouTube. Would they have any sense or perspective of the diversity of human culture?? Or would it be a completely, pop-culture skewed sense?
Yes, teens self-harm. Yes, such videos may indeed be triggering to someone searching for them. But then again, what would a person expect if they were to search on the terms “self harm” or “self injury?” Would we expect any normal person to not find potentially triggering material with such search terms??!
Of course not. To complain, as the researchers did in this study, that it is “problematic” that just under half of the videos did not contain a warning about the material seems nonsensical. How else would most people come across the videos in the first place?
I love snapshots of our culture like this one. But it’s just that — a snapshot of two keyword searches on one video site, at one point in time. It offers us insight into what some teens and young adults are doing when it comes to self-injury (more than anything else), and the creativity of using video to express one’s own pain and emotional hurt. I see such self-expressions as positive things, overall, just as I see online communities that allow people to share their pain with one another.
Ultimately, it brings a hidden, secretive (and often stigmatized and misunderstood) behavior out into the light. And by doing so, perhaps makes it easier in the future for others to more directly share with people who may be in a position to help them.
Read the USA Today article on the study: Teens share self-injury, ‘cutting’ videos on YouTube
Lewis, S.P., Heath, N.L., St. Denis, J.M. & Noble, R. (2011). The Scope of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury on YouTube (Free PDF). Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-2317