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David Baxter PhD

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Study warns of Cutting community: Internet sites encourage self-injuring
May 01, 2006
Kansas City Star

Adolescents who are prone to cutting or otherwise hurting themselves may find reinforcement among the proliferating web sites devoted to self-injury, warns a study out today in Developmental Psychology.

The study's three authors, all from Cornell University, point out that although internet contacts "clearly provide essential social support for otherwise isolated adolescents, they may also normalize and encourage self-injurious behavior."

The study's lead author, Janis Whitlock, explained in an interview that the marginalized adolescents who hurt themselves often are the types who are drawn to anonymous social contacts provided by internet bulletin boards and chat rooms.

And in the world of self-injury, the number of those virtual communities has grown prodigiously over the past decade, according to Whitlock's research. The first was established in 1998. Currently, 406 exist.

Whitlock's study is one of six published in a special section of the current issue of Developmental Psychology, a bimonthly journal published by the American Psychological Association. The issue is dedicated to adolescents' use of the internet. While Whitlock's study raises concerns about Web sites that emphasize self-injury, other studies in the special section looked at more positive web features that adolescents use.

Whitlock said many teens and others who use internet chat rooms and bulletin boards are looking for some type of connection, especially people with whom they can be candid about their habit. In her article, she wrote that the internet "may be especially advantageous for shy, socially anxious or marginalized youth, enabling them to practice social skills without the risks associated with 'on the ground' interactions."

In addition, the article says, young people who find their way to self-injury web sites may find the kind of support they need. Some of the self-injury web sites are monitored by professionals or other people who want to and can provide support to teens wishing to stop hurting themselves. Of the 3,200 postings that Whitlock and her associates studied on self-injury web sites, about 28 percent of the messages were supportive.

Other postings, however, are much less benign. In her article, Whitlock quoted an exchange among three persons, who described in great detail how to cut oneself and increase the bleeding.

Of great concern to Whitlock is evidence that when some susceptible people hear or read about self-injury, they tend to try it. That dimension of self-injury "suggests that the internet may spread or deepen the practice among the adolescent population," she said.

Whitlock told about a woman she met at a workshop. The woman told her that after she found a self-injury web group, she began cutting herself more frequently.

That resonated with Michael Lubbers, a psychologist and psychotherapist in Kansas City. He has led therapeutic support groups and has observed the group dynamic - especially among groups of people with the same tendencies and histories.

"They tend to trigger off one another," Lubbers said. "They're all into the same kind of behavior and have had the same kinds of experiences. They tell each other their stories. You get drawn into another person's story, and in a way it becomes your story and activates your own emotional experience."

With regard to internet bulletin boards and chat rooms, he said, "My concern is that that's the world for so many people."

Adolescents who find relief in injuring themselves often feel they cannot share that with people, and virtual communities of people who do the same can provide a measure of comfort and community not available "on the ground," Whitlock said. "It's like a homecoming."

Whitlock said she sees her study as one more reminder that parents need to be alert to their children's online lives.

"There are a lot of young people out there looking for a way and a place to belong," she said. "As long as virtual communities provide a way to belong - to have some sort of visibility and role that's acknowledged by others - they're going to be popular places to go."
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