According to University of Oxford researchers, although Internet forums can provide depressed teens with much-needed support, it can also put vulnerable individuals at greater risk for suicide and self-harm.
The research team arrived at this conclusion after examining all of the available research studies dealing with the topic of teen Internet use, suicide and self-harm. The review, which was published on October 30, 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE, included a total of fourteen different studies.
While the findings from the studies were often contradictory, the overall impression given is that while the Internet can provide an outlet for isolated and lonely teenagers to find support with their problems, it can also be fraught with risk for those who are most vulnerable.
In one of the studies which the team reviewed, 59 percent of teens reported that they had researched the topic of suicide online. Out of fifteen teens who reported having committed particularly violent acts against themselves, a shocking 80 percent said that they had first researched what they did online. Also, out of the 34 young people who self-harmed by cutting themselves, 74 percent said that they had done Internet research first.
The teens who hurt themselves said that anonymity was very important to them, which probably explains their heavy usage of Internet forums dedicated to self-harm. Most of the posts, however, did not seem to be directed at finding ways to curb their self-injurious behavior, the study authors said. One of the studies that the authors examined reported that the people using the forums tended to normalize self-harm. Most of the people posting seemed to be either seeking empathy or information about how to self-harm safely. Another related study found that out of almost 300 posts, nine percent were about self-harm methods and how to hide it from others.
One study which was reviewed found that participating in Internet forums did not seem to make teenagers feel better. Instead, they often came away feeling more distressed than before. However, another study contradicted this finding. In this study, it was found that Internet forum users tended to feel better over time, with most feeling better by about three months of usage.
In one of the studies, in which the teens themselves were asked about the support that they gained through Internet forums, the teens reported that positive behavior was generally encouraged. People were offered praise for not hurting themselves and urged to seek professional help.
Also discussed in the review was the topic of cyberbullying, which has figured quite prominently in recent news with the September 2013 death by suicide of a 12-year-old Florida girl named Rebecca Sedwick. Sedwick had been bullied relentlessly by her peers until she reached her breaking point and killed herself. Two of her teenage tormentors were arrested after one of them confessed on Facebook to having bullied her.
The study authors found in one study that they reviewed that cyberbullying makes its victims more likely to self-harm. Another reviewed study found that it slightly increased the rates of suicide – in both the victim and the perpetrator.
The senior author of the review, Professor Paul Montgomery, from the Centre for Evidence Based Intervention at the University of Oxford, is careful to point out, however, that his study does not show that the Internet causes people to commit suicide or hurt themselves. Instead, it shows that for certain vulnerable individuals, who are already considering these ideas, it may provide a trigger for them to take action on their feelings.
Lead author Kate Daine, a postgraduate researcher at the Centre, adds that there are no online interventions which are currently aimed at teens who are at risk for suicide and self-harm. Given that they are such frequent users of the Internet, she says, we need to know more about this problem so that they can be better helped.
Written by: Nancy Schimelpfening