Self-injury, which includes behaviors such as cutting, burning, and scratching the skin, is a common problem among American teenagers. Depending on which estimate you believe, rates of self-harm range from 0.5% to a whopping 18%, and it can be challenging to get an accurate number since self-harm is a behavior that thrives in secrecy. Self-harm is a way for struggling people to get an outlet for painful emotions, and a new study suggests that rates of self-harm are higher among teens who self-identify as “alternative.”
The study surveyed 425 15-year-old German teenagers. Researchers defined “alternative” teens as those who self-identified as members of goth, emo, or punk subcultures. Among students who embraced these identities, the rate of self-harm was 45.5%, compared to 18% among students who did not identify as alternative. The study also found that alternative-identified teens were four to eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their mainstream peers.
Interestingly, the study found that students who identified as nerds—a subculture historically associated with exclusion and being bullied—were not more likely to self-harm. Researchers noted that teens in this group were less likely to be victimized by bullying than alternative teens, and argue that this might be why nerds don’t experience the same emotional challenges as alternative teens.
Understanding the Correlation
Parents concerned about the effect of identification with a subculture should note that the study did not find that being goth, emo, or punk causes self-harm. The study’s authors argue that, for most alternative teens, self-injury is an outlet for emotional pain. Consequently, it could be that teens who already feel excluded or depressed are more likely to join a subculture. The researchers did, however, note that a small fraction of alternative-identified teens self-mutilated to prove their group identity, harming themselves to fit into the subculture with which they identified.
- Cutting statistics and self-injury treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.teenhelp.com/teen-health/cutting-stats-treatment.html
- Young, R., Sproeber, N., Groschwitz, R. C., Preiss, M., & Plener, P. L. (2014). Why alternative teenagers self-harm: Exploring the link between non-suicidal self-injury, attempted suicide and adolescent identity. BMC Psychiatry, 14. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-14-137
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