Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said the update would create a new offence that would target communications that encourage someone to physically harm themselves, making it illegal to do so, and bringing it in line with communications that encourage suicide – which are already illegal.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said the changes to the Online Safety Bill had been influenced by the case of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her own life in November 2017 after viewing social media content linked to depression, self-harm and suicide.
“I am determined that the abhorrent trolls encouraging the young and vulnerable to self-harm are brought to justice,” Ms Donelan said.
“So I am strengthening our online safety laws to make sure these vile acts are stamped out and the perpetrators face jail time.
“Social media firms can no longer remain silent bystanders either and they’ll face fines for allowing this abusive and destructive behaviour to continue on their platforms under our laws.”
The Molly Rose Foundation - established after teenager’s death - said the proposal to amend the Online Safety Bill appeared to be a “significant move”.
“It not only criminalises those who do the encouraging, but also turns this activity into an illegal offence – which means that even if the harmful but legal clauses in the Bill are removed or curtailed, such content would still be legislated against,” the Foundation said in a statement.
“From the evidence submitted to Molly Russell’s inquest in September, the ‘harmful but legal’ content probably did the most damage to Molly’s mental health.
“It’s therefore important that other ‘harmful but legal’ content, of the type we know was harmful to Molly, is also within scope of the Bill. Any changes to the current Bill should not delay its progress to the Lords, to allow sufficient time for scrutiny and debate there, since the devil will be in the detail.”
The Online Safety Bill is due to return to Parliament early in December after a number of delays and after a latest round of updates.
The self-harm measure would be included in amendments to the Bill, but Ms Donelan’s department could not when they would be tabled.
Earlier this week, the Government announced other new offences being added to the Bill that would crack down on the sharing intimate images without consent.
With the introduction of the updates around encouraging self-harm, social media platforms will be required to remove such content, and any person found to have sent such communications will face prosecution.
The Government said more details around the maximum penalty for the offence will be published in due course.
Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “Lives and families have been devastated by those who encourage vulnerable internet users to self-harm.
“Our changes will ensure the full force of the law applies to those callous and reckless individuals who try to manipulate the vulnerable online in this way.”