How self-harm images on Instagram affect viewers

Research has documented the widespread availability of graphic images of self-harm, such as cuttings, on the photo-sharing platform Instagram. After a British father said his 14-year-old daughter had viewed such explicit images on Instagram prior to her suicide, the platform announced that it would no longer allow such graphic images to appear.

teen holding up a phone inside in the sunglight.
Photo: The Gender Spectrum Collection

But little is known about how often such graphic images reach Instagram’s users and whether they have an effect on viewers.

A new study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and two European institutions is the first to investigate the relationship between exposure to self-harm on Instagram and subsequent self-harm and suicidality-related outcomes in young adults.

The research, published in the journal New Media & Society, analyzes data from an online survey of young adults conducted at two points a month apart, in May and June 2018, prior to Instagram’s announcement that it would seek to reduce images of graphic self-harm. The two-wave survey was completed by 729 U.S. adults ages 18 to 29. Over 80 percent were women.

The researchers found that people who reported having seen self-harm images on Instagram at the first interview were more likely than those who didn’t to report their own self-harm at the second interview. The study also found that exposure to self-harm on Instagram at the first interview predicted higher levels of suicidal ideation and risk for suicide at the second interview. 

Read more at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.