Internet Use May Up Self-harm, Suicide in At-Risk Youth

Caroline Cassels

November 05, 2013

Although online forums can provide support for socially isolated youth, new research shows that the Web also has a dark side. UK investigators have linked Internet use to an increased risk for suicide and self-harm in vulnerable youth.

A large review of Internet use and youth conducted by researchers at Oxford University in the United Kingdom showed that although some studies suggest Internet forums help support and connect socially isolated teens, others show that online forums can normalize self-harm and potentially discourage young people from disclosure or from seeking professional help. The review also showed that Internet use is linked to more violent methods of self-harm.

Furthermore, the investigators found that moderate or severe Internet addiction was linked to an increased risk for self-harm as well as higher levels of depression and suicidal ideation. The review also showed a robust link between Internet forums and an increased risk for suicide ― a connection not found in relation to other social network sites.

"While social media might be useful for supporting vulnerable adolescents, we also find that the Internet is doing more harm than good in some cases. We need to know more about how we can use social media as a channel to help young people in distress," lead author Kate Daine, a postgraduate researcher from the Center for Evidence-Based Intervention at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

The review was published online October 30 in PLoS One.

Although there has been a lot of speculation about "suicide contagion and suicide pacts" originating from the Internet, the researchers note that "direct associations with the internet are unclear."

The aim of the study was to examine the extent of evidence about both negative and positive influences of the Internet on the risk for self-harm and suicide in young people.

The review included 14 studies with empirical data on the Internet, self-harm, or suicide and young people.

The researchers found that although in most cases the Internet was used in a positive manner, mainly to aid support seeking and coping strategies, it could also exert a negative influence.

Specifically, they note that the "internet has created channels of communication that can be misused to 'cyber-bully' peers; both cyber-bullying and general internet use have been found to correlate with increased risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and depression," the investigators write.

They conclude that further research is needed to better understand how Internet media may exert negative influences and should also focus on how the Internet "might be utilised to intervene with vulnerable young people."

PLoS One. Published online October 30, 2013. Full article


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