Instagram bans ‘graphic’ self-harm images after teenager’s suicide

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Instagram has banned the circulation of graphic self-harm images, such as cutting, on its site.

The change appears to be in response to accusations that the platform was partly responsible for the death of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who died by suicide in 2017.

“Over the past month, we have seen that we are not where we need to be on self-harm and suicide, and that we need to do more to keep the most vulnerable who use Instagram safe,” said Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, in a statement on Thursday.

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This comes just weeks after Molly’s father, Ian Russell, told the BBC that he has “no doubt” Instagram helped kill his daughter.

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After her death, Molly’s parents explored her Instagram account and were shocked to have easy access to graphic material about depression, suicide and self-harm.

“There were accounts of people who were depressed, or self-harming, or suicidal, and [Molly] had quite a lot of that content,” Russell says. “Some of that content seemed to be quite positive, perhaps groups of people who were trying to help each other out, […] but some of that content is shocking in that it encourages self-harm, [and] it links self-harm to suicide.”

“We didn’t know that anything like that could possibly exist on a platform like Instagram,” says Russell. “And they’re still there.”

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New Instagram policy aims to ‘create safe and supportive community’ for all

In the statement, Mosseri says Instagram created the new policy following consultation with global experts on youth, mental health and suicide prevention.

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He also makes a distinction between graphic and non-graphic images. The latter will still be allowed on the site, but more difficult to find.

“We are not removing this type of content from Instagram entirely, as we don’t want want to stigmatize or isolate people who may be in distress and posting self-harm-related content as a cry for help,” Mosseri says.

Facebook, which acquired Instagram in 2012, also updated its policy in a similar way, directly citing Molly Russell’s death as a catalyst for the change.

“We constantly re-examine how we’re doing as we develop new products or see people using our services in new ways,” Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said in a statement. “And that’s what we’ve done following the tragic death of a young girl by suicide in the UK.”

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Banning graphic images is a step in the right direction, expert says

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, roughly 4,000 Canadians die by suicide each year, and it’s the second most common cause of death among young people.

It’s unclear whether there’s a direct link between media that portrays self-harm behaviours and actually engaging in them.

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However, according to Dr. Antoon Leenaars, a Windsor-based clinical psychologist, social media can have influence. “We also know that if the person has depression, they are even more vulnerable.”

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For Leenaars, regulation is key.

“Global News probably has some media guidelines about reporting suicides. However, with platforms like Instagram, there’s no control about what’s said, how it’s said, how factual it is and how sensational it is,” Leenaars told Global News.

“What is the benefit of having graphic pictures… except for sensationalism?”

While Leenaars supports Instagram’s new policy, he wants to stress that there were likely other factors which influenced Molly’s death. “I agree with the father that, in all likelihood, this social media impacted his daughter,” Leenaars says. “Is that the sole cause of it? That’s really a hard thing to say.”

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There’s still more to be done

For Fardous Hosseiny, the national director of research and public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, accessibility and stigma are the biggest roadblocks to suicide prevention.

“In general, the system needs to be transformed. When you injure yourself [physically], you can see a doctor within a couple of days… but when it comes to mental illnesses and mental-health challenges, our system has six- to 12- to 18-month wait times,” Hosseiny told Global News.

While people wait, their mental illness gets worse, and they often result in suicide because they have no other ways to cope, he says.

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Part of that system is social media, which can function like informal peer support, Hosseiny says.

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“Some people are reluctant to have a face-to-face conversation about things like this, but they might have an online group where they can just type a message. If we put the right protocols in place and the right framework in place, we can leverage social media for good.”

However, policy can be slow to change. In the meantime, if you’re worried about someone on your feed, reaching out is the best thing you can do.

“Usually, those people are looking […] to create a safe environment for dialogue,” says Hosseiny. “One thing we know about suicide is that if you talk to someone that’s showing [worrisome behaviour], it’s not going to increase their likelihood of attempting suicide.” 

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental-health issues.

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