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May 8, 2008

Cutting Corners at The Times

Readers of the New York Times health section were recently treated to an alarming article titled "The Growing Wave of Teenage Self-Injury," which claims that the cutting and other forms of self-abuse are on the rise and that the main culprit behind that increase is—you guessed it!—the internet. Because there are exactly zero statistics in the story to back up either of those claims, Gelf decided to take a closer look at the story.

The main source in the article is psychologist Dr. Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults, who tells the Times that the internet is "spreading the word about self-injury." But when Gelf asked Whitlock whether there is any evidence showing that self-injury is on the rise or that internet usage is a cause, she replied that it's impossible to know for sure, due to a lack of "baseline estimate."

Whitlock also sent Gelf her study of self-injury internet message boards published in Developmental Psychology which concluded that these boards "provide a powerful vehicle for bringing together self-injurious adolescents." But bringing people together through the internet is not the same thing as increasing their numbers—Hi Ron Paul supporters!—and the study does not say much about a link between a rise in teenage self-injury and internet use.

We're not experts, but we can't help but think that pinning a rise in self-injury (if there has even been one) on the internet is akin to pinning the Columbine massacre on Doom. Whitlock may think differently and, as she's something of an authority on the subject, the Times probably did its readers a service by seeking out her opinion and not ours. But couldn't the paper have pointed out both the difficulties in determining whether there is a "growing wave of teenage self-injury" and the paucity of evidence on the internet's relationship to it?

Related in Gelf: We point out a similar spurious-trend-meets-internet-boogeyman piece that the New York Times did on the relationship between anorexia and Spring Break.

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