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Network: Boys don't cry, they send e-mail

The Net is giving troubled teens somewhere to go for help. One person they turn to is Matthew Whyman, AOL's agony uncle
It's been a year since I took up the post as AOL's first agony uncle. In that time, however, I haven't received a single letter. My filing cabinet, indexed from Aberrations to Zits, remains empty. Meanwhile, I continue to deal with problems by the parcel-load from Bliss, the teenage girls magazine, who hire me as their Love Doctor.

So why hasn't AOL asked me to finish my glass of brandy and hang up my smoking jacket? In a word, e-mail. Each week, I get more than 250 pleas for help from switched-on but stressed-out teens. Welcome to the paperless problem page.

Online, the questions range across a huge spectrum, reflecting the complexities of life for young people at the end of the 1990s. All the standards are there: sex and sexuality; friends and foes; life at school and home; drink and drug-related difficulties. Some of the questions highlight a sophisticated understanding of certain areas, while others expose huge knowledge gaps. Yet the most striking aspect of the AOL service is that more than 50 per cent of the e-mails are from boys.

Until now, the agony column has been a strictly female preserve. It's the staple part of any young women's magazine. There, readers learn about themselves through other people's grief. Whether it's love, life, sex or body worries, the mags have got it covered. Visit any school and you'll find a gaggle of girls gathered around the latest copy of Bliss, Sugar, Mizz, More or J17. Often they use the issues raised by the agony pages as a springboard for discussion, and seize the chance to talk intimately while the lads are out playing football. Which is where the problem for boys comes into focus.

The worst thing about being male is our inability to express emotions. From an early age we're told to be brave and not cry, while our role models tend to be archetypical hard men like Arnie or Sly. For a young lad to ask for help or advice is like an admission of weakness. Our fathers are often unable or unwilling to talk, while turning to our mates is an open invitation to be ridiculed. Instead, we bottle things up, then run off our pent up energies by booting a ball about. And worse.

In 1996, 785 people aged 15-24 committed suicide in the UK, of which 80 per cent were male. When things get tough for lads, half the battle for them is knowing how to ask for help.

So why has the AOL agony page proved such a magnet for mixed-up young men? What is it about cyberspace that encourages them to unburden their deepest fears and worries? Most significantly, boys tend to log on alone; shut off from the influence of their mates. This renders the Internet free of peer pressure. Lads can ask any range of questions without fear of a backlash, being laughed at or ridiculed.

Throughout history men have formed a strong relationship with machines. They understand computers, speak their language, feel comfortable in their company. The isolated environment is a liberation for them, not a catalyst for social ruin. If you're an adolescent male, ill-at-ease with communicating on a face-to-face level, then the Net is the perfect medium.

Another big online lad-lure is the anonymity. In cyberspace, nobody knows who you are. Consequently, during AOL's monthly UKLive agony auditorium, I find myself faced with what appears to be some kind of virtual gangland gathering. "HammerHead", "Massive", "Speedcore", and "Killa24" - row upon row of menacing-sounding monickers pitch up for a session, and often stay the hour.

It's only when I click on their personal profiles, however, that little Rupert, 13, from Surrey emerges, who has invariably come for reassurance that he hasn't got a tiny penis, or to ask if there's a helpline he can call because he thinks he might be gay. By hiding behind their macho screen names, boys are free to ask sensitive questions without being identified. The girls enjoy it, too, enabling both parties find out more about the opposite sex. They also get their questions answered straight away. Something which appeals deeply to the male psyche - the need for instant gratification.

As for the nature of the questions boys ask, generally I find they are quite similar to those voiced by girls. From mental health to medical myths, body image and relationship problems, there is not much to distinguish between the sexes. Where girls are quick to seek help, however, boys tend to wait until things are really bad. While a young woman might write in because her best mate's turned against her, a boy will only speak out after two or three terms of intense bullying.

Problems like these are rarely solved in a few sharp sentences. Often more intimate counselling is required. In this respect, AOL's agony page and monthly auditorium work best as a referral service. If a young person has come to the Internet for help, then I feel it's most appropriate to put them in touch with organisations offering specialist advice within the same medium.

The Samaritans - http://www. samaritans.org.uk - and The Site - http://www.thesite.org.uk - are both keenly aware of the Web's appeal, and provide invaluable online help, information and support.

Ultimately, as more young people find their lives hard-wired to the net, so we should become more aware of its potential to help them deal with their problems.

AOL subscribers can access Matthew Whyman's problem page at keyword: STRESSED OUT or on e-mail whymanuk@ aol.com