Sometimes YouTube seems like the greatest thing since sliced
bread, providing an opportunity for everyone to present their message in a
catchy, graphic form. But then comes a reminder that some of that graphic
material could be seriously harmful to young patrons of the website.

Research published in the journal Paediatrics this month
found that videos
about cutting
and other forms of self-harm are multiplying on YouTube.
Canadian psychologist Stephen Lewis found more than 5000 of them. His study
focused on 100 videos on the site in December 2009, collectively viewed more
than two million times and generating many online comments.

The study’s authors … recommended that YouTube provide helpful resources
or links when people enter search terms for “self-injury.” A company
spokeswoman said YouTube is looking into the feasibility of the suggestion.

She said the site has policies against graphic content and content that
encourages dangerous activities. It relies on viewers to flag questionable
videos, and a YouTube team reviews and removes those in violation of those
policies. Self-injury videos are among those that have been removed.

Dr Lewis reckons that “between 14 per cent and 24 per cent
of teens and young adults have engaged in self-injury at least once”. Videos
that discuss the issue with the intention of helping people may have graphic
content that undermines their intentions.

Self-injurers typically are struggling with feelings of anger, sadness,
depression or other emotional troubles, and usually don’t cut deep enough to
cause major harm, said Barent Walsh, a therapist and author of a book on
self-injury treatment.

Self-injuring “is oddly effective in reducing emotional distress”
in people who have poor coping skills, Walsh said.

Of course, there will be people who argue that images can’t harm anyone, just
as they argue about violence and pornography, but Walsh does not agree:

He said it’s well-known that photos and websites about self-injury can
trigger the behavior in people who already self-injure or who are tempted to do
it. But he said the study results are important and raise concerns that YouTube
“may well be the most powerful influence of them all because of its
nature.”

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet