Hoax Encourages Cutting Over Beiber Pot Smoking

Eighteen-year-old pop sensation Justin Beiber (AKA the Beibs) spent this New Year’s Eve partying with friends at Newport Beach. There were no brawls, hookups or 911 calls, just the Beibs. And weed. Photos of the night show the teen star clutching what appears to a blunt (an emptied out cigar re-rolled with marijuana instead of tobacco) as he kicks it with friends, including his close buddy 19-year-old rapper Lil’ Twist, who some have accused of being a “bad influence” on Beiber. Little did Beiber know, his smoking habit would soon turn into #Cut4Beiber, a cruel prank on his fans.

On New Year's Day, paparazzo Christopher James Guerra, hot on the story that Beiber had been smoking marijuana, hurried to the scene where police had pulled over Beiber’s Ferrari (which was actually being driven by Lil’ Twist, not by Beiber) on Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. A car struck Guerra as he crossed the street back to his own vehicle, killing him. But Beiber’s marijuana saga did not end there.

Days later, a disturbing trend gained massive popularity on Twitter: #Cut4Beiber, the hashtag accompanied by graphic photographs of cutting, supposedly to urge Beiber to stop smoking marijuana. The trend was not initiated by “Beliebers” themselves, but the forum 4Chan, where users appear to have launched the #Cut4Beiber hashtag out of the hope that they could trick some Beliebers into actually hurting themselves. The photos -- arms so sliced up and bloody that there were more red gashes than visible flesh-- were disturbing enough. Even sicker is their target: Justin Beiber fans, many of whom happen to be Internet-savvy young girls.

While 4Chan may have hoped to at least mock and maybe even harm some Beiber fans, it is likely that few fans took the joke seriously and actually followed through with the sick prank. Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behaviors, says any Beiber fans who may have fallen victim to the prank would have been vulnerable to self-injury to begin with. “I suspect that there are definitely young women out there who are vulnerable to this sort of thing, and they would probably be young women who had encountered or considered it before,” she said, adding, “People who self-injure might use it as another justification for self-injury.” Still, “I doubt [4Chan] will sway someone who never really encountered it to start injuring.”

Nowadays, self-injury and cutting is far more prevalent in the media than it once, says Whitlock. Nonetheless, as dumb a prank as #Cut4Beiber was, it was popular for the same reason it held the potential to be problematic: The iconization of self-injury in the age of Internet.

Whitlock says that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the coming-out of high-profile cutters like Angelina Jolie, combined with an increased acceptance of body modification as expression, opened a Pandora’s box that would prompt self-injury among people who might not have done it before. Though celebs who come out as cutters may have the best intentions, she says the consequences are sometimes less than ideal.

“The Internet provides an outlet for an idea,” Whitlock told AlterNet. “Ideas -- and behaviors --- are as contagious as germs in some ways. The Internet and all media forms really just circulate an idea that is then attached to something, especially something iconic,” she said, “especially a pop icon like Justin Beiber.”  

4Chan users did not accuse Beiber of being a cutter himself, but by exploiting self-harm as a mechanism of group expression, they attached self-injury as a means to Beiber, the icon. And their target audience -- adolescents in middle school or early high school -- also fit the age group most commonly associated with cutting.  

“It’s definitely the right age for people who self injure, definitely the right gender for people who tend to be a little more at risk,” said Whitlock. According to her research, most self-injurers start harming themselves around age 14, though most will ditch the behavior after a couple of years. Girls are about one and a half times more likely to self-injure, she says.

4Chan may have targeted a demographic vulnerable to self-injury, but they did it with a reason that rarely prompts self-injuring behavior. “The idea that self-injury could be used as form of protest, solidarity or expression is not the most common reason for self-injury, but it is something that we hear,” said Whitlock.

Whitlock gave as an example a middle-school girl who “dedicated a series of her injuries to an old boyfriend who left her for another girl. She called him and said 'This is what I’m doing. See what you’ve done to me? This is what I’m doing in response.’”

But the more common reason to self-injure is to relieve emotional distress. “For some people, when they feel very emotionally overwhelmed or emotionally numb, self injury can bring them from a state of high emotional agitation to state of calm really quickly,” said Whitlock. “Or if they feel numb, it can make them begin to feel again.”

Self-injury is a complicated physiological process, but most simply, Whitlock said, “People cut to relieve emotional distress.” The anticipation of injury, or act of injury itself, engages the androgynous opioid system, the same subset of pleasure chemicals that react to chocolate, drugs and sex. “In people for whom self-injury really works, it activates that system and can move them from high agitation to calm or relative, functional peace.” For this reason, said Whitlock, therapy that focuses on emotion regulation is often the best treatment.

When it comes to the iconization of cutting, however, Whitlock said “the cat is of the bag,” and there is no going back. As far as 4Chan is concerned, she said, “If you make it sound silly and childish and you just dismiss it like that, it really doesn’t give it the appeal and attention to which young people in particular seem to gravitate."

The real influences on self-injury are icons and the media, who have a tendency to make self-injury look sexier than it is problematic. If it weren't for glossy images of past and present cutters, 4Chan may have opted for a different prank than #Cut4Beiber.


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