The Journey of Engaging With Web-Based Self-Harm and Suicide Content: Longitudinal Qualitative Study

Zoë Haime, Laura Kennedy, Lydia Grace*, Rachel Cohen, Jane Derges, Lucy Biddle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Self-harm and suicide are major public health concerns worldwide, with attention focused on the web environment as a helpful or harmful influence. Longitudinal research on self-harm and suicide–related internet use is limited, highlighting a paucity of evidence on long-term patterns and effects of engaging with such content.

This study explores the experiences of people engaging with self-harm or suicide content over a 6-month period.

This study used qualitative and digital ethnographic methods longitudinally, including one-to-one interviews at 3 time points to explore individual narratives. A trajectory analysis approach involving 4 steps was used to interpret the data.

The findings from 14 participants established the web-based journey of people who engage with self-harm or suicide content. In total, 5 themes were identified: initial interactions with self-harm or suicide content, changes in what self-harm or suicide content people engage with and where, changes in experiences of self-harm or suicide behaviors associated with web-based self-harm or suicide content engagement, the disengagement-reengagement cycle, and future perspectives on web-based self-harm or suicide content engagement. Initial engagements were driven by participants seeking help, often when offline support had been unavailable. Some participants’ exposure to self-harm and suicide content led to their own self-harm and suicide behaviors, with varying patterns of change over time. Notably, disengagement from web-based self-harm and suicide spaces served as a protective measure for all participants, but the pull of familiar content resulted in only brief periods of disconnection. Participants also expressed future intentions to continue returning to these self-harm and suicide web-based spaces, acknowledging the nonlinear nature of their own recovery journey and aiming to support others in the community. Within the themes identified in this study, narratives revealed that participants’ behavior was shaped by cognitive flexibility and rigidity, metacognitive abilities, and digital expertise. Opportunities for behavior change arose during periods of cognitive flexibility prompted by life events, stressors, and shifts in mental health. Participants sought diverse and potentially harmful content during challenging times but moved toward recovery-oriented engagements in positive circumstances. Metacognitive and digital efficacy skills also played a pivotal role in participants’ control of web-based interactions, enabling more effective management of content or platforms or sites that posed potential harms.

This study demonstrated the complexity of web-based interactions, with beneficial and harmful content intertwined. Participants who demonstrated metacognition and digital efficacy had better control over web-based engagements. Some attributed these skills to study processes, including taking part in reflective diaries, showing the potential of upskilling users. This study also highlighted how participants remained vulnerable by engaging with familiar web-based spaces, emphasizing the responsibility of web-based industry leaders to develop tools that empower users to enhance their web-based safety.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere47699
JournalJMIR Infodemiology
Publication statusPublished - 28 Mar 2024

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