What is the best way to protect children from being impacted by inappropriate self-harm images online?
Young people encounter images of self-harm in a number of ways which may affect both their response and the support that they may subsequently need. Some children will come across images unwittingly, such as whilst carrying out an unrelated internet search, when shared by a peer as a direct message, on a feed such as SnapChat or within a chat group on WhatsApp.
In these cases of accidental access, parents and carers can work with their children to reduce the likelihood by ensuring that they have appropriate settings to block content during internet browsing.
Whilst it is not possible to control direct messages to the same extent, parents should be mindful of the age restrictions for each site and app and, if possible, ensure that their child does not use any media before the legal age. Should a young person be allowed to use WhatsApp, however, parents should be aware that images will usually be backed up by default to their camera roll and would need to be deleted from this album and then the ‘recently deleted’ file. Should parents wish, they may be able to back up all images from their child’s devices to their own for monitoring using family sharing.
It is unrealistic for parents, carers and professionals to attempt to prevent a young person from viewing all potentially harmful images. Adults have a vital part to play, however, in terms of creating an environment in which children know that they can discuss their thoughts and feelings about content that they might have accessed without fear of judgement. This is particularly important in the case of young people who are deliberately seeking out images related to self-harm. Open, non-judgemental dialogue will support a young person to explore their motivation for accessing the image, providing context and information regarding risk and dispelling myths rather than sensationalising and glamorising as social media has a tendency to do. Parents and carers are also able to explore underlying issues as well as introduce more successful methods of dealing with distress.
Parents and carers should be mindful, however, that the viewing and sharing of images can represent a community of people who the child may come to feel validate their negative feelings. Young people report feeling envious and even motivated by the self-harm scars of others.
Self-harm and suicidal ideation should always be taken seriously and referred to the family GP or the school designated person.