Is the internet bad for our mental health?
In the next #CO90sDiscoveries episode, Dr. Becky Mars questions whether the internet can harm mental health and discusses how to prevent this.
Please note: this article contains information about suicide and self-harm which may be distressing for readers. Please read our ‘further information’ section at the bottom of this page to find a number of helplines that might be useful.
National charities, government agencies and internet providers are working harder to improve online regulations that will better protect young people’s mental health – a vital need highlighted by our research.
Self-harm and the internet: Helping young people stay safe online
Children of the 90s data has highlighted how easily and frequently young people are accessing harmful information about suicide and self-harm online. Working alongside the Samaritans, our researchers have guided internet service providers and social media companies on ways to make the internet a safer space.
Filling the data gap
While reports from the media and some coroners have highlighted the role of online content and social networking forums in self-harm and suicidal behaviour, substantive evidence has been lacking regarding the connection with mental health. Children of the 90s is one of the few longitudinal studies to have filled this gap by collecting repeated measurements of both suicidal and non-suicidal self-harm, and mental health problems.
One of our seminal research projects collected data on suicide and self-harm related internet use from 3,946 study participants aged 21.
Nearly a quarter (22.5%) of participants said they had searched for information on suicide or self-harm, come across sites or chatrooms, or talked about suicidal feelings or self-harm online. Suicide and self-harm related internet use was particularly common among those who had a history of self-harm, as reported by 51.2% of participants.
Around one in 10 people surveyed who had self-harmed had accessed harmful sites that offered information on how to hurt or kill yourself. However, it was much more common to access helpful sites that offered advice or support, and most who had accessed harmful sites had also sought out help online.
Online safety and best practice
An additional study interviewed 43 individuals who had used the internet in the context of suicidal feelings or self-harm, as well as bereaved family or friends. Clinicians were also interviewed about their experiences of asking patients about internet use when making assessments of suicide risk.
“This information is vital if we are to minimise harm but also to work out how we can capitalise on the potential to use the internet as a vehicle for reaching out to those in need,” said Dr Lucy Biddle, Senior Lecturer in Medical Sociology at the University of Bristol, who co-authored a report based on this study, detailing recommendations for health providers and the internet industry.
The report urged sites and search engines like Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to do more to reduce risks, including removing harmful content and ensuring supportive rather than harmful content comes up when searching. Calls were also made for health bodies to provide training to improve clinicians’ understanding of the online world and to encourage them to discuss online activities with patients presenting with self-harm or suicidal behaviours.
Changing behaviour and policy
“We are now working on studies using data up to age 30 to better understand who is at risk of continuing to self-harm into adulthood, and what the factors are that predict this,” says Dr Becky Mars, a University of Bristol researcher who specialises in epidemiology, suicide and self-harm, and mental health.
“By identifying people early, we can help them to find better ways to deal with their distress and help to prevent problems later in life.”
Our findings helped shape the 2019 UK government White Paper on online harms. And we have continued to collaborate with the Samaritans to disseminate our findings to major online providers. Our insights also formed part of the Samaritans’ guidance for online providers, published in 2021.
What we discovered
- 22.5% of 3,946 study participants aged 21 said they had searched for information on suicide or self-harm, come across sites or chatrooms, or talked about suicidal feelings or self-harm online
- 8.2% had used the internet to search for helpful sites, offering advice or support
- 81% of participants who had accessed harmful sites had also sought out help online
- Around one in 10 who had self-harmed had accessed harmful sites that offered information on how to hurt or kill yourself.
Information for readers: If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, or know someone who has, the following services may be of help:
- Your local GP
- Mind or text Shout on 85258 for 24/7 mental health support
- NHS: Coping with bereavement
- Exposure to, and searching for, information about suicide and self-harm on the Internet: Prevalence and predictors in a population-based cohort of young adults
- Using the internet for suicide-related purposes: Contrasting findings from young people in the community and self-harm patients admitted to hospital
- Prospective associations between internet use and poor mental health: A population-based study
- Suicide and the Internet: Changes in the accessibility of suicide-related information between 2007 and 2014
- Priorities for suicide prevention: balancing the risks and opportunities of internet use
- New project investigates the internet's impact on suicide
- Suicidal patients need better online support from clinicians and help groups
- Bristol Suicide and Self-harm Research Group