No one seems to know why it is happening, but more and more American adolescents are engaging in self-injury, especially cutting themselves. True enough, boys do self-injure, but cutting is largely a girl’s activity.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
Adolescent psychologists say there has been a sharp rise in recent years in the number of teens found to be engaging in self injury, mostly cutting, which usually involves using a sharp object such as a razor blade to inflict small cuts on the arms or elsewhere. The teens, both girls and boys, come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and include good students and struggling ones.
Cutting has become “the unfortunate coping strategy of our youth in the 21st century,” says Dr. Miller, of Albert Einstein College. In the past, teens often blew off steam in less self-destructive ways, such as talking with friends and family or unwinding in front of the TV, he says.
Based on recent research, she calculated updated figures for The Wall Street Journal and found that 9% of U.S. adolescents reported self-injuring in the previous year, and nearly 20% said they had tried it at some point in the past.
Children who do it often speak openly about it to their friends. After all, “cutting” has been destigmatized, and when you destigmatize bad behavior you tend to get more bad behavior:
Social media posts that feature cutting sometimes draw curious adolescents who want to try it, in what psychologists call a social-contagion effect. More teens also appear to be admitting to the behavior, or telling adults about friends who do it, because cutting has lost some of the social stigma it once had.
As for treatment, schools have been adopting Marsha Linehan’s dialectical-behavioral therapy, discussed (and even promoted) on this blog. See this link.
For now, I note this comment in the Journal article:
“One of the key mechanisms of action [in DBT] seems to be to give them replacement behaviors,” says Alec Miller, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and one of the authors of the DBT study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
I have often quoted Aristotle’s idea that the best way to overcome bad habits is to replace them with good habits, or, as Dr. Miller calls them: “replacement behaviors.” Seeing this concept at work in therapy is good news indeed.
As for why so many young people are finding it so difficult to deal with the stress of high school we can only speculate. I would note a point that the article, modestly, does not mention. The children who are caught up in this activity are pubescent. Since puberty is a monumentally important biological and social event, we should ask ourselves whether these children are having an easy or a difficult time adjusting to it. There’s more to the cutting problem than social media.
One has read that large numbers of adolescents participate in activities like sexting. Those who do not are still obliged to live in a culture where sexuality is exposed and exhibited, sometimes through pictures, sometimes through words.
Children undergoing puberty need private time and private space to process and adapt to the changes their bodies are undergoing. Instead, they find that their sexuality, regardless of whether they have even sexted or discussed it, is constantly being discussed and exposed.
Privacy seems impossible. Even children who have not made the mistake of sexting feel exposed. They live in a world where sex is a ubiquitous presence. They cannot deal with it without help because they are simply too young to deal with it.
One should not imagine that children who sext images of their genitalia are going to emerge from the experience unharmed. And one should not imagine that a culture that purveys images and talk about sexuality all the time and that makes such material readily available to adolescents is not going to pay a price.