Internet forums can increase the risk of vulnerable teenagers committing suicide, a study has found.
While the internet might not trigger suicidal tendencies, it can tip someone already at risk over the edge, concluded researchers from Oxford University who examined evidence from around the world.
In one of the 14 studies reviewed, 59 per cent of young people interviewed said they had researched suicide online.
According to another finding, the vast majority of teenagers carrying out especially violent acts of self-harm used the internet to investigate methods of inflicting injury on themselves.
Of one group of 34 who self-harmed by cutting, 73 per cent said they had conducted research online.
The review found that internet forums could provide support to socially isolated people, but other evidence indicated that some young people exposed to violent imagery online end up acting it out.
There was a “strong link” between young people using internet forums and an increased risk of suicide.
Professor Paul Montgomery, from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, said: “We are not saying that all young people who go on the internet increase their risk of suicide or self-harm.
“We are talking about vulnerable young people who are going online specifically to find out more about harming themselves or because they are considering suicide already.
“The question is whether the online content triggers a response so that they self-harm or take their own lives, and we have found that there is a link.”
The research, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, showed that even though internet forums may provide emotional support, this did not appear to reduce levels of self-harm.
Cyber-bullying via chatrooms was also found to increase the chances of vulnerable young people harming themselves.
Co-author Kate Daine, also from the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, said: “There are no known online interventions to date that specifically target young people at risk of self-harm or suicide, and yet we find that adolescents who self-harm are very frequent users of the internet.
“While social media might be useful for supporting vulnerable adolescents, we also find that the internet is doing more harm than good in some cases. We need to know more about how we can use social media as a channel to help young people in distress.”
Joe Ferns, executive director of policy at the Samaritans, said: “We should acknowledge that many people are using suicide forums and chatrooms to anonymously discuss their feelings of distress and despair, including suicidal thoughts, which may have a positive impact on the individual.
“Rather than concentrating primarily on ways of blocking and censoring such sites, we should think about online opportunities to reach out to people in emotional distress.”