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01 November 2013

Troubled teens explain dark side of 'chat rooms'

Researchers in the UK and US say internet use can do more harm than good for young people at risk of suicide or self-harm.

Researchers from Oxford University in England say while social media can help vulnerable teenagers seeking support, internet use can do more harm than good for young people at risk of self-harm or suicide.

Senior study author Paul Montgomery, a professor of psycho-social intervention at Oxford's Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention said: "I think it's surprising that so little is known about the internet and suicidal behaviour given its importance.

The study found conflicting evidence on whether online activity poses a positive or negative influence for vulnerable teens, but observed a strong link between the use of internet forums or "chat rooms" and an increased risk of suicide.

Isolated

"But I am unsurprised that what we found appears to be generally negative, as these vulnerable kids often feel isolated. We need to support such kids a great deal more [and] ask about their internet usage."

Moderate or severe addiction to the internet is also connected to higher risks of self-harm and increased levels of depression or thoughts of suicide, the study authors said.

One specialist thinks he knows why.

"In chat rooms, self-harm can be normalised," said Dr Matthew Lorber, acting director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

About 4 600 people between the ages of 10 and 24 take their own lives in the United States every year and many more survive suicide attempts, said the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another study showed that out of nearly 300 posts, 9% were about methods of self-harm, and users swapped tips in chat rooms on how to conceal the behaviour.

While some adolescents used the forums to congratulate one another for not cutting and provided emotional support for one another, no evidence suggested the support translated into reduced levels of self-harm.

How to help these at-risk adolescents remains a concern.

"I definitely agree with the mixed message of the study," Lorber said.

 
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