The troubling practice of self-harm among young people is increasing along with their ever more widespread use of the Internet and social media, according to consultant psychiatrist for children and adolescents Dr Nigel Camilleri.
Speaking with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Dr Camilleri said: “I think self-harm has always been there but it has been more hidden. But nowadays, with social media and the Internet, there has been an increase.”
Figures published by the National Statistics Office this week show that people aged between 16 and 24, the youngest group in the study, use the Internet the most. In fact, over 98 per cent of Maltese youths were found to use the Internet.
“There is always a reason behind self-harm,” Dr Camilleri explained. “Most people do it as a coping strategy. There is a release of endorphins, so it is addictive, but then you feel guilty afterwards.”
The best thing parents can do if they discover their child is self-harming, Dr Camilleri advised, is to not express shock. “If you show that you are shocked, you are negatively enforcing it and they are going to keep on repeating the action. Moreover, you are going to make the teenager angry because they feel misunderstood.
“Although it is hard and shocking for a parent to see a child self-harm, the best thing to do is to be supportive and to be there for the child.”
Dr Joseph Fenech, a higher specialist trainee in psychiatry, added that support should not just be given after the self-harming has occurred and then be stopped. “Otherwise, it reinforces the pattern where the individual needs to self-harm in order to receive support,” he explained. “It needs to be more consistent in order for the support to not become an encouragement for the self-harm.”
When asked whether he believes growing up these days exposes young people to an avalanche of perhaps impressionable news stories that leave an impression on them, Dr Fenech observed that it would probably depend on the personality of the individual.
“There are some people who would be predisposed to a certain code of ethics, who would see violence and detest it even more. And then there will be those who have a less ethically-sound background and would thus find it more acceptable,” he said.
When it comes to exposing infants to technology, Dr Camilleri said that, ideally, there should be no exposure to television and tablets before the age of two, unless it is done within sensible timeframes.
“When it is used as a babysitter,” he said, “it will affect the child’s attachment to care-givers and with their parents, which is the problem we are seeing, and that will affect their social skills later on in life.” However, he added that there are also great advantages to technology use: “Someone on the autism spectrum might be able to communicate better by using electronics,” he said. Negative effects that come along with the use of the Internet and social media include being exposed to everything, which also mean being exposed to things such as pornography. “There is a greater risk of abuse,” he added. “You could be contacted by someone who is pretending to be younger.”
When it comes to the effects of violent video games, Dr Camilleri pointed out that there is no evidence that violent video games increase the rate of violence in society. “However, if you are already developing anti-social traits, they may increase the chance of acting out violently. If a child is developing normally, then the chances are that they will not become more violent, so it does not create a population which is more violent.”
With the popularity and ready availability of social media being only a few years old, Dr Camilleri said that the phenomenon has not been around long enough for changes in behaviour and the lasting effects of social media to be measured. “What you do see in practice is that young people tend to communicate less with each other and with their parents. As a child, one of the things you are learning is social skills, and if you do not socialise because you are spending most of your time on social media, then things will be different.”