There is concern over the potential impact of the Internet on self-harm and suicidal behaviour, particularly in young people. However, little is known about the prevalence and patterns of suicide/self-harm related Internet use in the general population.
Cross sectional study of 3946 of the 8525 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) who were sent a self-report questionnaire including questions on suicide/self-harm related Internet use and self-harm history at age 21 years.
Suicide/self-harm related Internet use was reported by 22.5% (886/3946) of participants; 11.9% (470/3946) had come across sites/chatrooms discussing self-harm or suicide, 8.2% (323/3946) had searched for information about self-harm, 7.5% (296/3946) had searched for information about suicide and 9.1% (357/3946) had used the Internet to discuss self-harm or suicidal feelings. Suicide/self-harm related Internet use was particularly prevalent amongst those who had harmed with suicidal intent (70%, 174/248), and was strongly associated with the presence of suicidal thoughts, suicidal plans, and history of self-harm. Sites offering help, advice, or support were accessed by a larger proportion of the sample (8.2%, 323/3946) than sites offering information on how to hurt or kill yourself (3.1%, 123/3946). Most individuals (81%) who had accessed these potentially harmful sites had also accessed help sites.
(i) There were differences between questionnaire responders and non-responders which could lead to selection bias and (ii) the data were cross-sectional, and we cannot conclude that associations are causal.
Suicide/self-harm related Internet use is common amongst young adults, particularly amongst those with suicidal thoughts and behaviour. Both harmful and helpful sites were accessed, highlighting that the Internet presents potential risks but also offers opportunities for suicide prevention.