KIDS
November 5, 2013

Troubled Teens on Social Networks

Socially-isolated kids can find support and friendship on the Internet. But for some teens it makes suicide more likely.

For teens, the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse. Many young people at risk of harming themselves or suicide spend more time on the Internet than their peers. A recent review of existing studies finds that when vulnerable teens turn to the Internet, the results are often a mixed bag.

Researchers at the University of Oxford reviewed 14 published studies. Some reported that Internet forums were good sources of support and connection for socially-isolated people. Teens with few people in their lives benefited from the company and sympathy of fellow teens who helped them cope with the problems they faced.

Young people who went online to learn about self-harm and suicide, however, also found what they were looking for, other studies indicated; and that was not necessarily a good thing.

There are no known online interventions to date that specifically target young people at risk of self-harm or suicide and yet we see that adolescents who self-harm are very frequent users of the Internet.

The findings certainly suggest that the Internet has the power to help change their lives for the better, but they also caution us that there's a great need to learn more about how to make it do so.

Young people who use Internet forums to share their feelings benefited by becoming less distressed, according to one of the studies reviewed. Teens in the forum encouraged positive behavior: they congratulated each other for not cutting themselves, and urged one another to seek help from professionals.

But another study noted that some teens used the forums to find better ways of hiding their self-harmful behavior from others. Bullying also happens on the Internet.

Disturbingly, the review did spotlight a link between people using Internet forums and an increased risk of suicide. This doesn't mean that all young people who go on the Internet increase their risk of suicide, but if young people do go online specifically with these intentions, they will find the information they're looking for.

Like the Internet, libraries contain books and information which can be dangerous. But they also have books with helpful information. And like the Internet, libraries aren't going anywhere anytime soon. One way to help people who spend a lot of time in the library is to show them some good books to read.

Kate Daine, a postgraduate researcher from Oxford University's Centre for Evidence Based Intervention, echoes that idea when it comes to online social media.

She said in a statement, “There are no known online interventions to date that specifically target young people at risk of self-harm or suicide and yet we find that adolescents who self-harm are very frequent users of the Internet.…We need to know more about how we can use social media as a channel to help young people in distress.”

On place to look to see how this can be done is Australia. They recognized the power of the Internet for good by starting a national eTherapy service back in 2008.

The study appears in PLOS ONE and is freely available.

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