Banning images of self-injury could harm people in recovery

Social media platforms need to find a balance between protecting and silencing
A Facebook logo displayed in a start-up companies gathering at Paris' Station F in Paris. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)
On Feb. 7, Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram, announced they would be removing or censoring images of self-injury or self-harm, meaning any kind of cutting or self-inflicted tissue damage. This would include recent injuries, as well as scars from old injuries. 

The intent of the policy is to avoid encouraging self-harm or suicide. But there are also concerns that the decision would contribute to the stigma around self-harm, and make it harder for survivors to express themselves.

Stephen Lewis is an associate professor in the department of psychology the University of Guelph, and the current president of the Society for the Study of Self-Injury. He spoke to Spark host Nora Young.

During the discussion, Stephen Lewis emphasized the importance of making resource available. So we have included some links below.

And are there parts of the population that tend to be more affected by this?

What we know from quite a bit of research now that's been done, we see that self-injury seems to have its highest rates in adolescence and also in emerging adulthood.

With that being said, though, it's not to say that other age groups aren't also affected. Indeed, we see this happening in pre-adolescence in children and in adults. So people from all ages may engage in behaviour, but higher rates occur amongst adolescents and emerging adults.

What reactions to this policy have you seen?

There's been some concern voiced in terms of, if it's an outright ban of all kinds of imagery related to self-injury, then this could be in some way silencing some people—in terms of taking away a platform that would have a lot of meaning to them to be able to express what they're going through.

Given the stigma associated with self-injury and the experience of self-injury, many people do use the Internet as a means to express their experience. And we know from our research as well is that there's this reciprocity: people supporting each other and also obtaining support and giving support.

We know that some images of self-injury, for example a graphic image of an actual act itself, may for some be upsetting and triggering. And I think that's where a lot of the concern may be coming from. We know though that when people post other things—say, for example, the scars they may have from self-injury—that may serve a different purpose. It may also affect people in different ways, and for some people being able to show or display the scarring they may have from self-injury is also representative of their own resilience and strength for having navigated through a really, really difficult experience of part of their life.

So if we're taking it out entirely, it begs the question as to what impact might that have on individuals who want to share their experience, to share that they have indeed overcome. And then the other part of it is, if that's not being posted, and if not being seen by those people who may presently struggle or who feel hopeless, the concern is, what kind of messaging are they then getting?

Moderating content on social media is a pretty notoriously difficult problem to solve, but this instance seems particularly sensitive. There's this need to balance support for people who self-harm with balancing against the risk of triggering or the increased risk of self-harm. So how do you think Facebook and Instagram should balance these different concerns?

I do think that one thing would be to consider what is being posted in terms of the nature of the image itself. It might also be important to ensure that, irrespective of what is posted, that high quality, research-informed and, importantly, hopeful-messaged resources be available.

Those resources should emphasize things like different kinds of coping strategies that people can use. It should be a message that people can overcome self-injury. Yes, it's incredibly difficult, but people can also get through it. And I think that's a really important message to be communicated.

So in some ways, because there is so much concern about this, it points to an opportunity in terms of being able to effectively provide people with the resources that can actually be helpful in facilitating their own recovery journeys.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.

Hear Stephen Lewis' TedX Talk about his own experience with self-injury.


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