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Engaging Cornell students to study adolescent sexual health in the digital age

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Janis Whitlock and Jane Powers

Janis Whitlock and Jane Powers

BCTR researchers Janis Whitlock (director, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery) and Jane Powers (director, ACT for Youth) have joined forces to study how technology impacts teen sexual behavior. Their project Adolescent Sexual Health in the Digital Age explores youth and “technology-mediated sexual activity” (TMSA): how young people engage in sexually explicit activities through digital technologies, such as online pornography, sexting, and hook up apps. The work is supported by a recently-awarded Hatch grant.

As a starting point, Whitlock and Powers surveyed youth service providers, sex educators, and parents to assess their overall level of awareness and concern about TMSA, and to capture what these individuals have been observing among the youth with whom they interact.

To learn directly from young people themselves, the researchers enlisted the help of undergraduates. In collaboration with Professor Kelly Musick and students in her Research Design, Practice and Policy class (PAM 3120) Whitlock and Powers launched a semester-long project to develop a survey that could be used to explore TMSA among college students. Class members first participated in focus groups led by members of the ACT for Youth evaluation team, research assistants in the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery lab, and Callie Silver (HD ’16), a Cooperative Extension intern and core research assistant for the project. The focus groups prompted students to discuss how they think their peers navigate sex in this new digital landscape. The students then learned how to code the focus group transcripts and generate themes to develop a college survey. Once the survey was developed, students conducted a pilot study, generating approximately 400 responses. Finally, the class presented their findings as well as their recommendations for revisions to the survey.

In this mutually rewarding project, students learned about research methods through a real- world project, and in turn their work provided BCTR researchers with essential information that will be incorporated into an NIH proposal to further examine this understudied, but important, topic.

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Talks at Twelve: Janis Whitlock

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Helping Parents Help Their Teens: Lessons Learned about Parent Stress and Support from Research on Self-injury and Families
Thursday, November 12, 2015

Janis Whitlock
BCTR, Cornell University

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Addressing scars as lingering reminders of the pain of self-injury

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Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock

Even after doing the emotional work to heal from self-injury, scars can remain as a reminder of a painful time for many who self-injure. Tattooing has emerged as a potentially helpful tool for people with a history of self injury to cover, and reinterpret, their scars.

Janis Whitlock, director of the BCTR's Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, is quoted in a post about coping with self-injury scars. There is a biochemical payoff to self harm, notes Whitlock, "You are basically relying on your body's own chemical-producing capacity to generate a set of drugs that change your consciousness."

Whitlock also responded to the idea of warning youth about the visibility and stigma of future scarring as a deterrent to self-injurious behavior. She noted that, due to the developmental stage of the teenage brain, it is nearly impossible for youth to absorb that kind of message about the future when they're flooded with emotion.


How tattoos can ease the emotional pain of self-harm scars - Vice

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Schools learning to address rising student self-injury

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"Schools around the country have begun offering new classes and mental-health programs to help stem a sharp rise in the number of adolescents found to be engaging in self injury, especially cutting," begins a recent Wall Street Journal article. The piece goes on to outline the use of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) in schools across the country to offer kids other tools to deal with overwhelming emotions.


Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, was a resource for the "Teen Cutting: Myths & Facts" sidebar on the article:

Myth: Cutting is a kind of suicide attempt.
Fact: Cutting usually isn’t intended to be life-ending. It is a coping mechanism used by young people who are stressed, overwhelmed or in emotional pain. It helps them manage their emotions and feel temporary relief.

Myth: Self-injury is something girls do, not boys.
Fact: Therapists and school officials often see more self-injuring girls than boys, but it may be that girls are more willing to ask for help. In many research samples of self-injuring people, there is a small, or no, difference in the proportion of males versus females. Girls are more likely to cut; boys are more likely to hit or burn.

Myth: Self-harm is a problem among teens but not younger children.
Fact: In a sample of 665 youth surveyed for a 2012 paper in Pediatrics, 7.6% of third graders, 4% of sixth graders, and 12.7% of ninth graders reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury. Self-harming behaviors included cutting, hitting and scratching.

Myth: Self-injury is a problem among social misfits and struggling students.
Fact: People who self-harm include excellent students and those who struggle; youth who have a hard time fitting in, as well as leaders with a wide circle of friends; and those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Myth: People who cut are looking for attention.
Fact: Most people who do it say cutting, while painful, makes them feel relief temporarily. Young people often do it secretly: In one study, nearly a quarter of adolescents who reported self-injuring said they were sure nobody knew or suspected. Some say the physical pain distracts them from emotional pain, or that it makes them feel more alive.


Schools face the teen cutting problem - Wall Street Journal

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CRPSIR research assistant graduates with honors

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2014_1022_075.jpg Kemar Prussien, who has worked with Janis Whitlock in the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR) for the last two years, graduated with honors in psychology this year. While her main interest is in sickle cell anemia, seeing Dr. Whitlock speak during a class earlier in her Cornell career led her to pursue working with CRPSIR. During her time as a research assistant in the BCTR she pursued her interest in psychological processes related to stress and challenging health conditions - for the individual who is experiencing the stress and his or her family.

Working with CRPSIR was so influential an experience that she chose to write her honors thesis on a self-injury topic: Non-Suicidal Self-Injury and Self-Worth: Psychosocial Influences on the Relationship between Threats to Self-Worth and NSSI. She also co-authored a paper during her time in the BCTR, Predictors of Self-Injury Cessation and Subsequent Psychological Growth: Results of a Probability Sample Survey of Students in Eight Universities and Colleges.

Next Kemar is off to study with Dr. Bruce Compas, a leading sickle cell anemia scholar, at Vanderbilt University.


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CRPSIR cited in NPR story on self-injury

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In his late teens David Fitzpatrick began to cut himself with razor blades. He was not intending to commit suicide, but was using self-injury as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions. This type of is self-wounding is called Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), which the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR) defines as the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue resulting in immediate damage, without suicidal intent, and for purposes not culturally sanctioned.

David told his story to local NPR station WNPR in Connecticut, describing his shame and confusion around NSSI,

For me, it was just a growing depression, and shame, and self-rage, and loathing...I got so overwhelmed. I felt like I can’t tell anyone about this, because it’s so bizarre.

The piece references information from the CRPSIR web site, an excellent source of information on NSSI, including resources for those who self-injure, parents and caregivers, friends, therapists, and other professionals who serve youth.


Self-injury and mental illness: A story of recovery - WNPR

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Whitlock quoted on self-injury in US News & World Report

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Misconceptions and misinformation about self-injury can keep sufferers from getting care and effect how they are treated by others. A recent US News & World Report article addresses some common myths about self-injury, including that self-injurers are suicidal, that self-injury is uncommon, and that the behavior is untreatable.

0089_12_140.jpgJanis Whitlock, director of the BCTR's Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, was quoted in the section dispelling the misconception about self-injurers necessarily being suicidal:

If someone becomes suicidal, then the act of having engaged in self-injury does psychologically prepare them to damage their body. That piece, for somebody who's never hurt their body before, is not easy. We have a lot of inner safeguards, psychologically, from taking our own lives. Somebody who really wants to commit suicide is going to have to overcome that. And somebody with self-injury has already practiced hurting themselves that way.

The article includes nine myths about self-injury in all.

Myths and facts about self-injury - US News & World Report

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Whitlock and CRPSIR featured in documentary and on

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Janis Whitlock and filmmaker Monica Zinn

Janis Whitlock and filmmaker Monica Zinn.
photo courtesy of Monica Zinn

"Every single human being suffers and every human being finds a way to handle that," Dr. Janis Whitlock notes in the documentary film, Self Inflicted. Whitlock, director of the BCTR's Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR), is interviewed in the film, which also features youth who self-injure and other experts in the field. Self Inflicted will be released in 2015.

CRPSIR's work is referenced in a post on on the ways that teens deal with anxiety. The post and accompanying video outline the stressors teens face and the ways they're amplified by social media. Some teens acknowledge that self-injury can become an option they turn to in order to handle stress. A list from CRPSIR of warning signs that a child may be self-injuring is included in the post.


Self Inflicted trailer

Generation stress? How anxiety rules the secret life of teens -

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Talks at Twelve: Janis Whitlock, Thursday, November 12, 2015

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Helping Parents Help Their Teens: Lessons Learned about Parent Stress and Support from Research on Self-injury and Families
Janis Whitlock, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, BCTR

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Beebe Hall, 2nd floor conference room

Contemporary parents face unparalleled challenges in helping teens (and themselves) navigate an increasingly complex world. This is particularly true for parents of teens struggling with complex mental health issues such as self-injury. The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery program has been increasingly devoted to exploring and understanding the parent experience of youth who self-injure or who struggle with similar emotion regulation challenges. In her talk, Dr. Whitlock will share and summarize findings to date and will highlight emerging lessons learned for helping parents help their youth.

Janis Whitlock is a Research Scientist in the BCTR. She is the founder and director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Janis received her doctorate in 2003 from the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development at Cornell University, a master’s degree in public health from UNC Chapel Hill (1994), and her BA from UC Berkeley (1988). Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, she spent over a decade working in development and administration of front line services for adolescents and women related to sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and social and emotional development. She is dedicated to linking science with on-the-ground efforts to support and enhance the lives of youth and their families in the areas of adolescent and young adult social and emotional health and wellbeing.


This talk is open to all. Lunch will be served. Metered parking is available in the Plantations lot across the road from Beebe Hall. No registration or RSVP required except fo groups of 5 or more. We ask that larger groups email Patty at letting us know of your plans to attend so that we can order enough lunch.

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RNI workshop connects extension educators with Cornell faculty

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Karl Pillemer presenting

Karl Pillemer presenting

On June 25-26, nineteen Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) educators from eight New York State counties attended a Research Navigator Initiative (RNI) workshop focused on skill-building, networking, and resource identification to form partnerships with campus researchers. The RNI is a BCTR initiative and a central component of the College of Human Ecology’s extension and outreach efforts. The workshop was planned and facilitated by Jennifer Tiffany, BCTR director of outreach and community engagement and executive director of CCE’s New York City programs, and Karl Pillemer, Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development and College of Human Ecology and associate dean for extension and outreach, in collaboration with the New York State affiliate of the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Karl Pillemer, who co-founded the RNI in 2010, introduced the workshop with a presentation on bridging the “two cultures” of research and practice. Tasha Lewis, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design, shared her autobiography to demonstrate the motivations and interests of researchers. Janis Whitlock, director of the BCTR’s Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR), presented with CCE educators Suzan Sussmann and Denyse Variano (Orange County) about their successful research-practice partnership, which has led to various dissemination efforts on non-suicidal self-injury prevention. Natalie Bazarova, assistant professor of communications, shared her research on social networking and asked for participants’ advice on outreach and dissemination strategies. Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development, also consulted with the group about building community partnerships for her research on early childhood development.

Other Cornell faculty and staff, including BCTR director John Eckenrode, Monica Hargraves, and Mary Maley, discussed the resources available to CCE educators and executive directors in support of research-practice partnerships, and Carol Devine led an institutional review board training. The workshop included several networking opportunities where participants could informally meet Cornell faculty and discuss their research interests.

The RNI supports collaborations between Cornell faculty and CCE educators, promoting campus-community research partnerships. The RNI provides research-related workshops to CCE educators, and informs Cornell faculty about the resources and capabilities of CCE as a research partner and broker of community collaborations. For more information on the RNI, contact Jennifer Tiffany.


Workshop offers roadmap to link research, practice – Cornell Chronicle


Related articles:
Advanced Research Navigator Workshop held for CCE educators
Research Navigator Initiative trains extension staff in all NY counties


(0) Comments.  |   Tags: CCE    CRPSIR    Janis Whitlock    Jennifer Tiffany    John Eckenrode    Karl Pillemer    Mary Maley    media mention    Research Navigator    workshop