Thursday, 07 February 2019 23:31

Does Social Media Drive School Students to Self-Harm?

Author:  [This article is originally published in psychologytoday.com written by Raj Persaud]

[This article is originally published in psychologytoday.com written by Raj Persaud - Uploaded by AIRS Member: Jeremy Frink] 

What is more dangerous for child minds, taking some treatment or social media?

UK teenager Molly Russell, just 14 years old, reportedly took her own life in 2017 after viewing disturbing content—which possibly encouraged suicide or a suicidal outlook—on Instagram.

Matt Hancock, the UK Health Minister, was subsequently reported, in the last week, as declaring that he was, "desperately concerned to ensure young people are protected."

Molly Russell’s father, according to the BBC and other outlets, said he believed Instagram "helped kill my daughter".

The headlines became; ‘Social media firms could be banned if they fail to remove harmful content, the health secretary has warned’. This for example, on the BBC News website.

The Minister for Health, said on a BBC TV interview programme on January 27th 2019, that he was "horrified" to learn of Molly Russell’s death.

Just a day or so later, the Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield, waded in, with a widely reported open letter to tech firms, declaring: “The tragic suicide of Molly Russell and her father’s appalled response to the material she was viewing on social media before her death have again highlighted the horrific amount of disturbing content that children are accessing online…I do not think it is going too far to question whether even you, the owners (of tech companies), any longer have any control over their content”.


Suicide-encouraging sites should be regulated, and promotion of suicide over the Internet is already censored to some extent by electronic filtering. Encouraging suicide is illegal in Australia, yet remains legal in Japan, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

But maybe people, particularly children, turn to the internet when in the real physical world services are difficult to access at best, or even nonexistent. Perhaps the link between social media use and suicide in children tells us something about children's perceptions about turning to mental health services supposedly designed for them and should create a call to do better in that area.

A 2015 Canadian study attempted to examine social media use and suicidal thinking in 753 middle and high school children in Ottawa. This research found that during the prior 12 months, of those who reported low use of social-networking sites such as Instagram and Facebook, only 5.5% seriously considered attempting suicide, while the proportion jumped to 24.9% for those visiting these sites for more than two hours each day.

The study, published in the academic journal, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, also found that students who reported that they wanted to talk to someone about a mental health or emotional problem, but didn’t know where to turn, were also more likely to engage in heavier social networking site usage than those who were able to communicate with someone in the real world about emotional issues.

The authors, Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga and Dr Rosamund Lewis, point out that research examining university students has found no relationship between getting depressed and heavy social media use. Those findings are in contrast to those of this study, which found such an association in high school students. This investigation found almost half (45.6%) of heavy users of social media sites had an unmet need for mental health support, but less than a fifth (16.0%) of infrequent users did.

Maybe as we get older, we get better at handling life’s trials, and perhaps we engage with social media differently. Being seen as ‘mental’ by friendsmeans mental health issues might be particularly stigmatizing and embarrassing for younger adolescents, so they don’t seek help in the real world, and maybe as a result turn to the internet for help.

In October 2016, Jeremy Hunt confessed that children’s mental health services are the UK’s National Health Service’s biggest failing.

The British Medical Journal recently reported a survey of 1000 general practitioners (family doctors) conducted on behalf of the mental health charity Stem4, which found that almost all (99%) were apprehensive that young people in the UK risked harm while waiting for specialist mental health treatment. Most GPs (90%) also thought that mental health services for young people had deteriorated over the past two years.

Increasingly, GPs appear to be turning to prescribing antidepressants for children although the evidence that this is helpful remains to be confirmed.

In 2004 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) re-analysed clinical trials and found a doubling of suicidal events for adolescents on active treatment with the newer SSRI-type antidepressants, and this led to a Black Box warning. This was as much perhaps, points out Dr. David Healy, a psychiatrist specialising in psychopharmacology, because of the background lack of efficacy of these drugs for teenage problems as for the data on suicidal events.


Healy, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Bangor in Wales and lead author in an investigation entitled, ‘Paediatric antidepressants: Benefits and risks’, argues that in the decade since 2004, in the UK, antidepressants appear to be now among the most commonly prescribed drugs in adolescents, particularly in girls.

His review, published with co-authors in The International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine estimates that there has been a 100-fold increase of antidepressant prescribing in Britain for children, while a recent CDC publication places the use of antidepressants among American adolescents potentially at 13%.

This is worrying if the UK follows where the USA leads.

Another study recently, also published in The International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine, reported on the forensic examination of completed suicides between 2006–2010 by adolescents in Sweden. A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant, was found in the blood of adolescent patients from 42 suicides, representing 14% of completed suicides. The authors calculate that taking an SSRI antidepressant in those between ages 10 and 19, statistically speaking appears to elevate the chances of completed suicide some 25 times. Of course association does not equal causation. There may be other explanations for this association other than simple causation. But the finding led the authors of this study to conclude: "it is crucially important that depressed youth taking SSRIs be closely monitored throughout the duration of treatment."

However, it may sometimes be that antidepressants are prescribed as a substitute for close monitoring, as close monitoring is highly labour-intensive, and issuing a prescription less so.

airs logo

Association of Internet Research Specialists is the world's leading community for the Internet Research Specialist and provide a Unified Platform that delivers, Education, Training and Certification for Online Research.

Get Exclusive Research Tips in Your Inbox

Receive Great tips via email, enter your email to Subscribe.

Follow Us on Social Media

Finance your Training & Certification with us - Find out how?      Learn more