YouTube videos that show young people purposely cutting or burning themselves may reinforce that kind of behaviour, a new study suggests.

"The worry is it provides a sense of community and allows you to feel that it's more acceptable to just keep doing this," said Nancy Heath, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal who co-authored the study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

About 14 to 24 per cent of youth and young adults purposely injure themselves as a way of coping with stress, the paper reported.

The research led by Stephen P. Lewis, a psychologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, found that as of December 2009 there were more than 5,000 self-injury videos on Youtube.

Treating self-injury behaviour

According to Self-Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E.) Alternatives, a group the helps people recover from self-injury, the most effective treatment is teaching young people how to:

  • Recognize the irrational thoughts behind the feelings that led them to injure themselves.
  • Focus on the present rather than the past.

The group took a closer examination at 100 of the most popular self-abuse videos, half of them including a live person.

They found that these 100 videos had been viewed a total of more than 2 million times or a median of 23,750 times each, said the study.

"What really amazed us, even as experts in the field, is the popularity of these videos," Heath said in an interview with CBC Radio Noon in Montreal.

"One would hope these would all be videos that would be incredibly discouraging and telling them 'don't ever do this," Heath added. But that was not the case.

However, about half of the videos were merely factual and 51 per cent were "quite hopeless in tone," suggesting it is impossible to break out of the self-injury habit.

No warnings

The researchers are also concerned about the fact that 28 per cent of the top videos featuring individuals cutting or burning themselves, but never warned the viewer in advance.

YouTube guidelines

Youtube's community guidelines tell users:

  • Don't post videos showing bad stuff like animal abuse, drug abuse, or bomb-making.
  • Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed. If your video shows someone getting hurt, attacked or humiliated, don't post it.
  • YouTube is not a shock site. Don't post gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies and similar things.

That is a concern because such images could trigger a relapse in those who are trying to recover from that kind of behaviour.

Heath said YouTube reacted very quickly to questions from the media about the paper by contacting the researchers and taking down the videos, cited in the study, that were thought to be problematic.

YouTube's community guidelines ask people not to post scenes of people getting hurt.

But Heath said just removing some of the videos is not going to solve the problem: "We can't take down every single one. It's too big for that."

Instead, she thinks it's important to provide access to inspirational videos that suggest healthier ways of coping with mental health problems.

The researchers hope that the new information will prompt mental health professionals who work with young people to ask about their internet use.

The paper also suggested that if parents and teachers know about these videos, they will be able to have more open discussions about them with young people.

The paper recommended that search engines direct people who search for self-injury videos be directed to helpful resources such as the numbers for crisis lines. Google already provides that kind of resource for people who search for suicidal thoughts.