MONDAY, Feb. 21, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- The YouTube videos are disturbing -- images of teens with their arms bleeding and scarred where they sliced into themselves with a razor blade or other sharp object; poetry about pain, loneliness and hopelessness.
"My secret is my blade, it is my obsession, it is my dark secret, when I am empty I bleed, when I am sad I bleed, when I have no hope I bleed," reads the text of one such video.
Researchers report this as evidence of an alarming new trend: Teens posting videos on YouTube that depict "cutting," in which troubled adolescents use a razor blade or other sharp object to dig into their skin and draw blood, or other forms of self-injury such as embedding objects under the skin or burning themselves.
By sharing the sometimes graphic images with other vulnerable youths, the videos may make the behavior seem more normal and even prompt some teens to try it, the researchers noted.
"Some individuals who view this, if they are vulnerable and if they are regularly and repeatedly viewing these types of videos, it could be a virtual community in which self-injury could be reinforced and getting help is not always conveyed," said study author Stephen Lewis, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
The study was released online Feb. 21 and will appear in the March print issue of Pediatrics.
Researchers searched for the top 100 most-viewed videos about self-injury or self-harm. Together, the top videos had been viewed more than 2.3 million times, and many were rated favorably by viewers. About 64 percent were about cutting, while the rest were about other forms of self-harm.
About 42 percent of the videos warned viewers that the images might be "triggering," that is, prompt someone with a history of cutting to want to injure themselves.
Yet few of the videos were outright encouraging cutting -- only about 7 percent were obviously so.
About 42 percent were neutral, 26 percent discouraged self-injury and 23 percent had a mixed message, according to the study.
"These videos aren't necessarily promoting self-injury," Lewis said. "It could be them expressing their experiences, dispelling myths or trying to educate people."
As for the overall tone of the videos, about 53 percent were factual or educational, 51 percent were melancholic, 23 percent were encouraging, 16 percent were hopeful, 13 percent were angry, 4 percent were humorous and 25 percent didn't fit into any of those categories, the report indicated.
"Cutting was my alternative to committing suicide. It was a comfort, the blood reminded me I was alive," wrote "Amy" in one YouTube video.
Youths who "cut" are typically not trying to kill themselves, but say that harming themselves helps them cope with other mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and frustration, explained Dr. Niranjan Karnik, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at University of Chicago who specializes in treating adolescents.
Self-injury may be more common than many parents understand, Lewis said. Between 14 percent and 24 percent of youth and young adults have self-injured at least once, according to background information in the study.
Though worrisome, Karnik said it's a good sign that so many of the videos were a teen-aged version of the public service announcement, warning others about the dangers of self-injury, depression and suicide.
And since most self-injury is done secretively, the videos may open up an avenue of discussion for parents and teens, Karnik added.
"So much of this cutting behavior has been this hidden epidemic. Kids would do it, go to school and show their circle of friends," Karnick said. "If a parent comes across this at home, or sees their kid has been looking at these videos or posting on a Facebook wall what they like about someone else's video, this is an opportunity for adults to open up a discussion and talk about it."
Karnick warned parents against freaking out if they find out their teen is cutting.
"Don't come down on them like a ton of bricks if it's minor cutting," he advised. "For many kids, it's like a pressure valve until we can give them some better strategies for coping."
The Center for Young Women's Health has more on teens and self-harm.