Few Good Resources on Self-Harm Exist Online, Study Finds

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FRIDAY, April 4, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People seeking help online for cutting and other forms of self-harm often receive incorrect or misleading information, a new study suggests.

Just one in 10 Internet sites related to non-suicidal self-injury is endorsed by health or academic institutions, the researchers found.

It's estimated that 14 percent to 21 percent of teens and young adults engage in self-injurious behaviors such as cutting, burning and bruising. Young people may use this behavior to cope with strong emotions.

"It's a stigmatizing issue for many people and it's quite misunderstood, so going online is often more appealing to them in terms of getting information," said study author Stephen Lewis, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph in Canada.

"Unfortunately, much of the information we found on the Internet is of poor quality, and some of it propagates myths about people who self-injure, which may lead to further stigmatization and isolation," Lewis said in a university news release.

To analyze the quality of information on self-injury available on the Internet, the researchers used a Google keywords program. They identified 92 terms related to the behavior that get at least 1,000 hits each month. For each term, they examined the content on the websites displayed on the first page of each search.

"We focused on the first page because often people don't get beyond that when doing online searches," Lewis noted.

About 22 percent of the links that showed up in the searches were for health information websites, according to the study published online recently in JAMA Pediatrics. But only 10 percent of these websites was endorsed by a health or academic institution.

The investigators also found that each website contained at least one myth about self-injury. Among the misconceptions found was that self-injury is linked to gender and that self-injury is an attention-seeking behavior.

About half of the websites examined said that people who self-injure have mental illness, and 40 percent said those who self-injure have a history of abuse. Meanwhile, 37 percent said most people who engage in self-injury are women. All of these statements are either false or exaggerated, the researchers noted.

The implications are significant, Lewis said.

"Parents, peers and others looking to help someone with [nonsuicidal self-injury] may also be seeking information online, and what they are finding may be impacting their effectiveness as sources of support," Lewis said.

Over the past year, there were more than 42 million global searches using terms related to self-injury, the authors pointed out. More credible information on self-injury needs to be at the top of search pages, and Internet users should be educated on how to make sense of the health information they find online, they added.

"We were a bit surprised by the number of searches related to the topic but more surprised at how much of the information we came across was of low quality," Lewis said. "The Internet potentially is a powerful vehicle to reach out to those who self-injure and offer help and recovery resources, but we have to do it effectively and correctly."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about self-harm.