A month after Instagram promised to remove graphic images of self-harm from its platform, Sky News has found numerous disturbing videos and pictures on the social media website.
Without encountering any filters or warnings it was easy to find videos depicting suicide and people cutting themselves.
Molly Russell took her own life six days before her 15th birthday in 2017 after viewing self-harm and suicide material on Instagram.
Her father Ian said the images “helped kill her.” The family’s subsequent campaign forced the social media company to make a statement last month, that in the future there would be “no graphic self-harm or graphic suicide related content on Instagram”.
But after setting up a normal account we found the social media platform continued to host graphic content with hundreds of disturbing posts.
These have remained in place for weeks without being taken down. Some of the videos glamorised suicide and offered instruction on how to do it. Certain hashtags, which we won’t identify, came with no warning about the nature of the content.
We also discovered that hashtags about weight loss were linked to more disturbing areas. A fairly innocuous search on the subject of dieting could be only two clicks away from self-harm images.
Pro-anorexia photographs and messages that victims’ families fear contribute to the problem, also remained on the social media site.
We discovered numerous accounts promoting anorexia, including weight loss goals, images of painfully thin women and messages encouraging extreme weight loss.
Some accounts include a comment saying: “Please don’t report, just block” as users fear they will be shut down.
The current Miss England, Alisha Cowie, says that content she saw on Instagram led to her anorexia and self-harming when she was a teenager.
Aged 13, she looked to Instagram for help improve her fitness, but was drawn in to a community that encouraged extreme weight loss and self-harm. Alisha lost three stone in a year at a time when she should have been putting on weight.
She said: “I would self-harm on my arms and my legs. I started doing it after seeing a post on Instagram. I was only 13 and had never come across suicide or self-harm before. I was looking for fitness advice.
“From a weight loss post, there was a hashtag for anorexic people to post pictures and comments about how they were feeling. From that there were self-harming pictures under this anorexic hashtag.
“They made it seem so poetic and glamorised it.”
School heads are expressing increasing concern about the content available to children on Instagram. Especially those relating to eating disorders.
Amy Sellars, assistant head teacher at Latymer Upper School, said: “Parents have said to me that part of the battle when trying to help with their child’s recovery is the easy access that they have to these communities of people who are essentially undoing all the good work that the hospitals and the parents are trying to do.”
Responding to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson said: “Nothing is more important to us than keeping the people who use Instagram safe. We do not and have never allowed content that encourages or promotes suicide or self-injury – which includes eating disorders – and will remove it as soon as we are made aware of it.
“As a result of the ongoing expert review into our approach to all suicide and self-injury content we no longer allow any graphic images of self-harm, such as cutting, and are making it harder for people to discover non-graphic, self-harm related content.
“We also expect to make some adjustments to our policy enforcement around eating disorders, including classifying more content as promotion, so more is removed.
“This is a complex area and experts have been clear in telling us that it is not something we should rush. It is important that we act responsibly to get it right.”
Instagram has now removed the graphic self-harm content identified by Sky News.
:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.