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Leading Trauma Expert Calls For Schools To Educate Children On Dangers Of Online Trauma

Self-harm content poses urgent societal issue that needs addressing by parents, policymakers, and educators
A photo of a child checking out online content on a tab. Children are often adversely impacted by exposure to self-harming content online. KELLY SIKKEMA/UNSPLASH

Self-harm content is now so “rife” online that children should learn about the dangers it poses at school, according to a leading trauma expert.

Researcher and trauma therapist Catherine Knibbs, who helped counsel survivors of the Manchester Arena attack, says schools should educate pupils about online trauma in the same way they do with sex, drugs and alcohol.

Knibbs argues in her new book “Online Harm and Cybertrauma” that the volume of self-harm content available to children online is an urgent societal issue that desperately needs addressing by parents, policymakers and educators.

She warns schools that they should educate children on the dangers of self-harm, which could lead to young people making safer choices and a reduction in deaths.

Knibbs, who is accredited by the UK Council for Psychotherapy, believes children today are being exposed to information “beyond their maturity.”

Photo of a teacher addressing students in a class. Children need to be educated in school about the negative impact of self-harming online content. KENNY ELIASON/UNSPLASH.

“We know that information about drugs and alcohol can result in more conscious decisions and safer choices,” she said.

“We have education packages in schools and youth settings giving out information about sex, drugs and alcohol.”

“This is said to reduce medical interventions and lower the number of deaths.”

“So why does this not exist for self-harm in the same way?”

“We urgently need some of these support spaces for young people, while discouraging the imagery or detailed reports of how to self-harm being shared.”

However, Knibbs also argues blame should be laid at the feet of the media platforms on which children access this content, and that more efforts should be made by these companies to prevent and discourage graphic imagery and share reports of self-harm.

Though some countries are introducing new laws to increase protections, Knibbs argues material is so prevalent that action must go further than issuing directives to take content down.

Such directives include the UK government’s Online Safety Bill, which will be introduced later this year and will require tech firms to alter their platforms and make them safe for children.

Highlighting the serious issues children face online, including cyberbullying, stalking, and disinformation, Knibbs makes reference to the tragic death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who died from self-harm after viewing harmful social media content.

Molly’s father, Ian Russell, and the then Children’s Commissioner called for such content to be removed.

Knibbs argues that viewing self-harm images can be regarded by children as a way of making sense of their feelings and seeking support – but adds that this can often end in repeated trauma.

Photo depicting a child immersed in a mobile phone.  Access to online self-harming content should be restricted for children who often do not know how to process it. BRUCE MARS/UNSPLASH.

She drew on her own experience working with survivors of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017, who revisited the attack through online videos in attempts to make sense of the tragic event.

“Each time my clients watched this,” Knibbs explained, “it resulted in a re-experiencing of the event that re-traumatized them.”

In her new book, Knibbs also highlights the fact that self-harm can take “slow” forms such as influencers taking excessively-long ice baths, ‘roasting’ where people are made the butt of commenters’ jokes, and even staying up late on devices.

Another area of subtle online harm documented in the book includes ‘hoaxes’ where people are dared to take part in pranks, such as the ‘#necknomination’ online drinking challenge, which became popular in 2014.

The trend is reported to have been linked to at least five deaths across the UK and Ireland, and Knibbs herself tried to warn a school about the challenge – which had resulted in some people drinking bleach – but school staff did not act.

She also focuses on neurodiverse children – such as those with autism – who are particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying and virtual “mobbing,” as they fail to comprehend the ‘rules’ of such online interactions.

But Knibbs, who introduced her own children to technology before the age of five to “facilitate their learning and play environments,” denies that denying children access to technology is a suitable solution.

Instead, she argues children should be educated on their brain health.


Produced in association with SWNS Talker

Edited by Suparba Sil and Virginia Van Zandt

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