Internet offers hope for teens in need of support

January 10, 2008

As more and more people turn to the Internet to find out what ails, a University of Alberta researcher is looking into the role the web is playing in helping adolescents cope with thoughts of suicide.According to Elaine Greidanus, a Faculty of Education child and adolescent counselling graduate student, teens dealing with suicidal thoughts are difficult to reach, with few services available that directly target them. She says while teens don’t seek out traditional modes of support, her research is showing that they seem to be logging on for emotional support.

“Some of the studies they’ve done have found adolescents just don’t feel comfortable seeking help, usually for the same kind of reasons that make up adolescence; they feel self conscious and worry about their peers finding out,” said Greidanus. “A lot of them have a tough time finding out for themselves that they have a ‘problem,’ they just know they have feelings; they don’t yet have that more-adult capacity to judge those feelings as something that needs some sort of intervention.”

Greidanus’ initial research looked at one specific online help site, following the content of threads created by a dozen site visitors. Beyond the positive, textbook advice and direction to other resources, Greidanus noted that the trained website monitors would direct adolescents seeking help to others who weredealing with similar difficulties.

In these instances, Greidanus documented messages of empathy including “Stop hurting yourself, I care for you!” and “You should go to the doctor.” She found these messages helped the participants develop a relationship and a sense of community with their peers. Eventually, she also found several of the participants who initially began asking for support began writing to support others. She believes this proves the online community to be a meaningful, peer-based support system.

“Adolescents feel more comfortable online partly because of that anonymity and partly because the Internet provides that transition between not seeking help and seeking help,” said Greidanus. “They can go onto Google and just type in ‘depression’ without feeling that they had to necessarily define the problem beforehand and begin the process.”

Psychologist, university professor and expert in adolescent suicidal behaviour Robin Everall says understanding how adolescents interact and communicate with each other on the Internet can open previously closed off channels for connecting with distressed youth.

“One of the advantages to having some kind of service provision on a website is that teens feel very comfortable in that venue,” said Everall, explaining that the Internet provides the building blocks for adolescents in distress to build up a support community around them.

“They discover there is a site where others are dealing with the same types of issues. There also seems to be a sense of self protection, you’re not exposed in the same sort of way and developmentally that seems to be quite appealing.”

Greidanus, a chartered child psychologist, plans on dissecting this phenomenon further by conducting anonymous online interviews to determine things like why this path to help was chosen, how effective it is and just how far-reaching the effects of this sort of help are being felt.

“There is a lot of potential in these sites, but as with anything on the Internet it is hard to standardize,” said Greidanus. “But what we have is a very good start in getting a good sense of what is going on out there.”
Source: University of Alberta

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