Study: Internet May Encourage Teen Self-Mutilation

Hundreds of Internet message boards are a haven for teens who cut, scratch, burn or otherwise mutilate their bodies, a Cornell University study reveals.

“Internet message boards provide a powerful vehicle for bringing self-injurious adolescents together, and to a great extent, they provide a safe forum and a source of valuable support for teens who might otherwise feel marginalized and who may be struggling with shame,” said Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behaviors and the first author of the study.

The study is published in the May 2006 special issue of Development Psychology on use of the Internet by children and adolescents.

A Safe, Scary Haven

Researchers analyzed more than 3,200 postings on 10 message boards that focus on self-injury. They found the most common type of posting was supportive, followed by discussions of triggers, motivations and concealment. About 6 percent of the posts were requests to share techniques. Most postings were from females who claimed to be between the ages of 14 and 20 years old.

Researchers reveal that online message boards give many isolated teenagers a safe place to share their secret, but could also encourage the practice that may also include ripping or pulling skin or hair, biting, punching oneself or bruising and breaking bones. They fear that easy access to a virtual subculture of like-minded kids could reinforce the behavior and teach other kids how to do it.

“Our greatest concern is that it could be difficult to leave the behavior if you’ve finally found a community that you never had before,” said John Eckenrode, professor of human development at Cornell and the third co-author of the paper. “Another concern is that this could be a toxic virtual environment that kids are stumbling into, just the way kids stumble into people who are predatory.”

Clueless Parents

Jane Powers, a senior research associate at Cornell and co-author of the study, noted that these kids can easily find each other 24/7, and adults are clueless that this is going on.

That parents don’t know what’s going on is the real problem, opined JupiterResearch analyst Joe Wilcox. “If your kid is posting on a public message board and everyone else knows about it but you, then the problem starts with you, the parent. It’s like the cry about MySpace and what the kids are revealing. It is a public Web site. MySpace is more public than a kid’s diary,” he told TechNewsWorld.

First, television was bad for kids, then video games, now it’s the Internet, Wilcox said. What about public schools or shopping malls, where kids could gather to do “bad things” face-to-face? “Sure, there may be a legitimate problem, but like many other problems you can’t blame it on the Internet,” he said. “You can blame it on parents.”

Virtual Malls

The study reflects the changing nature of adolescent support systems and provides a window into how cyberspace has become as important for development as schools and neighborhoods. It is even replacing the mall as a primary place for social interaction.

The Cornell researchers said they will reveal “some startling findings” on the prevalence of self-injury in a major, representative college-age sample in the June issue of Pediatrics.

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