The Internet may be a help or a hazard when kids go online, six new studies show.

Some of those risks and benefits are highlighted in a special issue of the journal Developmental Psychology. Among the findings:

--Message boards about self-injurious behavior (such as cutting) included social support and risky content.

--Kids’ age is a big factor in how well they understood the Internet.

--Low-income kids got better grades and test scores in reading after being given home Internet access.

--In online chat rooms, youths were less likely to curse or engage in sexual talk if the chat room had a monitor.

--Sexual health information was a popular Internet topic for teens in the African nation of Ghana.

Self-Harm and Message Boards

Message boards about self-harm, such as cutting oneself, was the topic for Cornell University’s Janis Whitlock, PhD, MPH, and colleagues.

Whitlock’s team identified 400 message boards about self-harm and did an in-depth study of 10 of those message boards. They focused on sites that weren’t highly moderated, in order to avoid censors.

The boards had between 70 and more than 6,600 members. When membership information was available, most members claimed to be young women in their teens and 20s.

Over two months, the researchers studied more than 3,200 postings on the message boards. Most of those messages -- more than one in four -- offered informal support, such as, “We’re glad that you’re here” or “Just try to relax and try to breathe deeply and slowly.”

But 9 percent of the messages mentioned ways to conceal self-harm and its effects (such as scars) and nearly as many mentioned the “addictiveness” of self-harm.

Those message boards may have provided “essential social support for otherwise isolated adolescents,” write Whitlock and colleagues.

However, the researchers also voiced concern that some content on the boards might reinforce or promote self-harm.

A larger, longer study would help, the researchers note. Meanwhile, they stress that “it is very important for adults to know something about what adolescents, particularly vulnerable adolescents, encounter in the virtual communities they inhabit.”

Cutting & Self-Harm: Warning Signs and Treatment

Age Is Important

“Age matters” in how well kids understand the Internet, writes Zheng Yan, EdD.

Yan is an assistant professor at the University of Albany’s School of Education. He studied 322 elementary and middle-school kids in New England.

The students answered questions about the Internet’s technical and social complexity, including:

--“What is the Internet?”

--“If you could walk into the Internet, what would it look like?”

--“What kinds of good things can happen to us when we go to web sites?”

--“What kinds of bad things can happen to us when we use email?”

--“Do you need to be careful when you go to the WWW?”

In terms of understanding the Internet, kids’ age was more important than gender, history of Internet use, frequency of Internet use, and participation in informal classes, Yan found.

He suggests using highly restricted filtering programs and kid-oriented sites for very young kids, with less restrictive filters for older children.

Better Grades With Internet Use?

MichiganState University’s Linda Jackson, PhD, and colleagues studied 140 children from low-income families who had never had home Internet access.

The kids received home computers and free Internet access for nearly a year and a half. The researchers checked the kids’ grades and test scores before and after the study.

The kids with the greatest home Internet use had higher grade-point averages and reading test scores at six months, one year, and 16 months of home access.

The opposite wasn’t true. That is, the kids with the highest grades and reading scores before the study didn’t use the Internet more than other children, Jackson’s team writes.

The kids used the Internet for an average of 30 minutes daily, mainly surfing the web. Web sites typically have text, letting kids practice reading. Web sites don’t usually involve math, and math scores didn’t change in the study.

After the study, the families kept the computers and received help in finding low-cost Internet access.

Crude Language in Chat Rooms

When teens visit moderated chat rooms, they’re less likely to swear and engage in racy talk than if they visit chat rooms without moderators.

That’s what Kaveri Subrahmanyam, PhD, and colleagues found when they studied 583 teens who visited a moderated and unmoderated chat room. The chat rooms were designed as places for teens to hang out, without specific topics.

Subrahmanyam works at California State University and is also associated with the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA. She and her colleagues tracked the chat rooms from afar without joining in any conversations.

Unmonitored chats had more cursing and sexual content. Monitored chats “provided a relatively safe haven for participants who present themselves as young and female,” write Subrahmanyam and colleagues.

It’s hard to know if chatters were who they claimed to be, the researchers point out.

Seeking Sex Information

U.S.youths aren’t the only ones going online with sex on their minds.

A study of 778 teens aged 15-18 in the African nation of Ghana shows that two-thirds had gone online, mainly at cafes with Internet access. All of the teens lived in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

More than half of the teenage Internet users had sought health information, and sexual health information (including sexually transmitted diseases) was a leading health topic.

“Across the globe, young people try to obtain information about health, especially sexual health,” write the researchers, who included Dina Borzekowski, EdD, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Nothing will or should replace interactions with health providers, but easily accessible, understandable, credible, and confidential information can improve the lives and choices of young people,” the researchers write.

“The Internet is an invaluable tool for adolescents who use it to look for answers to personal, sensitive, and embarrassing questions about their bodies, relationships, and health,” write Borzekowski and colleagues.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Whitlock, J. Developmental Psychology, May 1, 2006; vol 42. Yan, Z. Developmental Psychology, May 1, 2006; vol 42. Jackson, L. Developmental Psychology, May 1, 2006; vol 42. Subrahmanyam, K. Developmental Psychology, May 1, 2006; vol 42. Borzekowksi, D. Developmental Psychology, May 1, 2006; vol 42. News release, American Psychological Association.