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“The Internet Made Me Do It”—Social Media and Potential for Violence in Adolescents

“The Internet Made Me Do It”—Social Media and Potential for Violence in Adolescents

DejanStanicMicko/ Shutterstock

DIGITAL PSYCHIATRY

In June 2014, numerous news outlets told the chilling story of two Wisconsin preteens who lured their best friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. When asked why, these girls reported that the internet meme, “Slenderman,” drove them to do it. Following this horrific crime, the typical questions of “how” and “why” were asked, but soon came another question: was the internet, in fact, an accomplice? Had their online activity led to a blurring of fiction and reality in such a way that had allowed them to commit attempted murder?1

This case revives a long-standing debate: does media exposure influence acts of violence in youth? Recently, the American Psychological Association Task Force re-reviewed the existence of a potential link between violent video game exposure and perpetration of acts of real-life violence.2 Examining the literature from 2009 to 2013, the authors determined, “Consistent with the literature that we reviewed, we found that violent video game exposure was associated with: an increased composite aggression score; increased aggressive behavior; increased aggressive cognitions . . . Our task force concluded that violent video game use is a risk factor for adverse outcomes, but found insufficient studies to examine any potential link between violent video game use and delinquency or criminal behavior."2

Video games are only a small part of the wide expanse of media readily accessible to children throughout the day. While teens engage in an average of over six and a half hours of screen time daily (including social media and watching videos online), the average daily time spent playing video games was just 56 minutes for boys and 7 minutes for girls.3 With adolescent minds attached to their devices for so much of the day, what should the practicing psychiatrist know about a potential connection between aggressive behaviors and all online activity?

The evidence

There is limited research to indicate that an increased number of hours on social media correlates directly with aggressive behavior but there is literature that connects certain types of internet use to increased aggressive behavior. For example, quality of online exposure may be contributory; youth known to have perpetrated serious crimes were significantly more likely to have viewed violent web content when online4.  Moreover, similar to the way media coverage of suicide can act as a contagion for “copycat” suicides,5 there is also evidence that some mass killings may be influenced by other violent acts in the immediate past.6

Teens that spend hours “liking” their friends’ pictures on social networking sites may be significantly more likely to have other traits associated with violent behavior.

With the internet now providing unfettered access to images of real-life violence, salient examples being recent videos of murders and gang violence uploaded to Facebook Live, overall exposure to, and potential for, copycat violence may be increased.

Quantity of internet usage may also be contributory; several studies connect problematic use of the internet (PIU) or internet addiction (IA) to increased aggressive behaviors, perhaps attributed to similar neurobiology between the two conditions.7 PIU and IA are often broadly defined as internet use that is uncontrollable, markedly distressing, time-consuming or resulting in social, occupational or financial difficulties.8

A study of over 2000 Korean High School students found a near two-fold increase in aggression in severely internet addicted youth over mildly internet addicted youth6 and similar findings have been replicated in other adolescent studies.9-11 Other measures of aggressive behavior show correlation as well. American high school students who met criteria for PIU were significantly more likely to have been in physical fights than their non-PIU cohorts.12

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