Oxford academics have co-authored a review of fourteen recent studies which look into the link between internet usage and self-harm and suicide among young people.

The review, which was published in October, has drawn attention to the worrying discovery that young people who contemplate harming or even killing themselves go online more often to find empathy from others in similar situations and pick up tips than to seek help to stop feeling suicidal. In some of the studies investigated, this was found to be true of well over half of the study’s participants.

Professors Paul Montgomery and Keith Hawton, both academics based in Oxford, cited “growing concerns about the influence of the Internet on the risk of self-harm and suicide among young people” as their reason for embarking upon the project.

They assembled as much of the current research literature as possible in order to see what information is already available. Professor Hawton said, “We were surprised that there were not more studies, given the theoretical importance of this issue… I am sure that more research is currently being conducted. One surprise was the contradictory nature of the research findings from different studies, with several indicating that the internet had had a positive, helpful impact (i.e. through social support and good advice).

“However, the predominant theme was one of danger for distressed young people, especially in terms of gaining access to websites which seem to encourage suicidal behaviour.”

The review found that the internet creates unfavourable conditions for young people thinking about suicide. It provides a cloak of anonymity which allows the vulnerable to remain hidden and the sinister troll to flourish. In a forum environment, violent thoughts can be normalised and take on a life of their own. Victimisation through cyber-bullying also loomed large in accounts of the influence of the internet upon desperate young minds.

On what he hoped the impact of his research would be, Professor Hawton commented, “We hope more researchers will think about these issues and conduct further informative studies, and that clinicians will be encouraged to ask all distressed youngsters who come in as patients about their internet usage. Finally, we would like to see the development of internet sites that can provide support and therapy for young people who may be depressed and/ or suicidal.”

Charlotte Hendy, a spokeswoman for OUSU’s Welfare division, had the following to say, “We empathise with anyone [enrolled at Oxford] who is thinking about self-harm, having negative thoughts or contemplating suicide, and would encourage them to seek help and support by contacting the University’s Counselling Service, Nightline or their GP.

“Anyone wishing to get more involved in campaigning around the issues of mental health should join OUSU’s ‘Mind Your Head’ Campaign, which encourages people to think and talk about mental health and wellbeing.”

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