Self-Harm Online Support Networks

June 01, 2012

News Type:  Weekly Spark Research

Research on young people participating in SharpTalk, an online self-harm support forum, may help mental health professionals create effective online communities for young people who practice self-harm. According to the authors of this study, “the increasing use of online forums as a source of health support, and a social space, means that an understanding of these spaces and communications within these spaces is crucial for health care providers and researchers working with young people.”

The authors suggest that it is important for people facilitating online support forums to identify and help participants struggling with the informal rules developed by members of the forum, since acceptance by a supportive community of peers can help young participants effectively address their self-harm behaviors.  

The researchers found that the young participants established informal expectations for appropriate posting. These expectations were shaped by their experiences in other online communities and concerned issues such as how posters introduce themselves, establish their “credentials” for posting, describe their history of self-harm, demonstrate their knowledge of self-harm and appropriate behavior in online forums, ask for help, and provide support to other members. Especially important is the ability of participants “to maintain appropriate boundaries and avoid triggering or responding to triggers from other young people who self-harmed.”

SharpTalk was an experimental online forum created for the purposes of this research. SharpTalk involved 77 invited participants and was moderated by mental health professionals.

Smithson, J., Sharkey, S., Hewis, E., Jones, R., Emmens, T., Ford, T., & Owens, C. (2011). Membership and boundary maintenance on an online self-harm forum. Qualitative Health Research, 21(11), 1567-1575.