Agony aunts and uncles, for so long a staple of teenage magazines, are now being reinvented for an online audience - and it's boys who are seeking the most emotional support from cyberspace.
Service provider AOL is the first Internet company to run a regular agony clinic for younger members, and boys comprise 70 per cent of the audience. Traditional advice services, such as Childline and the Samaritans, find that only 20 per cent of telephone calls are from boys.
Matthew Whyman, who writes a problem page in the teenage girls' magazine Bliss, is one of two qualified counsellors on the AOL site. Whyman runs a monthly clinic for the 13-25 age group, while his colleague Sophie Parkin hosts a weekly session for younger children.
The clinics are like electronic classrooms, where 60 to 90 children at a time pop in and out. They can send questions and comments at any time during the session, and these are fielded by a master of ceremonies, who filters the e-mails to edit out repetitious questions and makes sure that one child doesn't hog all the attention.
Callers are grouped in virtual rows and can chat to each other about the subject under discussion. But their chatter does not interrupt the live conversation between agony uncle or aunt and questioner. "It's rather like sitting in the back row of the class," says Whyman.
You can opt to move rows if you don't enjoy the discussion, and once the session is over, you can send a question to Matthew or Sophie. Up to 400 a week do just that. These aren't answered individually, but a library of the most commonly asked questions, with Matthew's and Sophie's replies, are on hand for reference.
"The first session we did, a one-off auditorium 18 months ago, opened my eyes to the fact that boys are crying out for emotional advice. They love the fact that they'll get an answer in 10 seconds," says Whyman.
"I find they bottle it up for so long and will only unburden themselves if it's dealt with right away - whereas on a magazine, you'll have to wait three months for a reply and only a tiny percentage of letters are answered."
Counselling services such as Childline have long worried that they are failing to get through to boys. Last year it heard from 25,000 boys and 90,000 girls. But usually the boys are in a far more desperate state than most female callers. Last year Childline issued a booklet, We Know It's Tough To Talk, aimed at professionals in a position to encourage boys to call before they reach breaking point. According to the Samaritans, there are 730 suicides a year among 15 to 24-year-olds, of which 80 per cent are young men. After road accidents, suicide is the biggest killer of young males.
Whyman believes the online service is popular with boys because they are happy to have a dialogue with a machine but would be loathe to ask an adult or friend an emotional question. "They'll use on-screen names like 'Hardcore' or 'Killer', but their question may be full of emotion," says Whyman.
"I have a small penis. What shall I do?" is a common question, in a typically clipped sentence. Whyman says: "You'll find that letters to magazines tend to be more formal and hedge round the subject. The nature of e-mail lends itself to a more direct line. He's probably been thinking about this for weeks and weeks. Once he decides to get it off his chest, he just bashes out a few key words."
(Whyman's answer to the question is matey and reassuring - along the lines of - all guys are worried about their tackle but it's what you do with it that counts. "An old saying, but true.") The way the children express themselves varies from brief and simple to eloquent descriptions which show a sophisticated understanding of their own problems. One 17-year-old recently asked: "I'm going out with a mature 15-year-old girl who wants sex. I know she's underage but I'm afraid that if I don't go with her - and I really want to - she'll finish with me. How can I explain this to her without driving her away and wrecking a loving relationship?" Whyman answers in the colloquial language familiar to any teen magazine reader: "OK, well I'm afraid you gotta respect the law on this one, no matter what she says. Sex with someone under 16 is illegal, and you can be prosecuted. As for the emotional side of things, you need to show a level of maturity here and discuss why she can't wait."
Whyman says he never aims to solve problems: "I'm pointing them in directions to go for further information and encouraging them to pick up the phone to Childline or the Samaritans. But it's a relief that they are looking for information and help at an earlier stage, rather than letting their depression get out of hand."
Sophie Parkin adds: "This is the first time boys have had access to emotional advice without having to make eye contact or express themselves on the phone. The numbers of male callers shows how necessary it is."
The success of the service has encouraged Whyman to put together a directory of advice forums to guide teenagers round the Internet. "I found that for all those 'Help, I'm gay!' letters I was constantly advising boys to ring the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, but the reason they were getting in touch with me on the Net was because they couldn't or wouldn't use the phone. I realised I had to suggest other online options, but there wasn't an easy source of information."
The result, published in January, is a stylish CD-sized booklet called Out of Site, listing websites for everything from student travel to Aids, pregnancy and housing problems.
According to Samaritans' spokesman Justin Irwin, the unregulated aspect of the Internet is what has held back the agency from expanding its online commitment. But it has had a website for almost two years and the number of e-mails, currently running at 40 per day, doubles each month.
"Just having the website has helped modernise our image and encouraged younger people to contact us," says Irwin. Of those who give their age, half are under 25, and many who claim to be women are, says Irwin, "judging from the tone of the e-mail, very likely to be men".
Although e-mail callers can easily maintain anonymity, the Samaritans are concerned that it can't provide a round-the-clock service. "We aim to reply toe-mails within 24 hours, but it's nothing like the one-to-one counselling on the phone. We just see it as a way of befriending people and drawing them in, helping them seek help and support."
Childline is monitoring the Internet situation and learning from the Samaritans' experience. But like Irwin, it sees unassailable confidentiality issues and believes it is wrong to respond directly to a child's private e-mail when it is possible that someone other than the caller will be able to read the reply. "Providing a group response or a delayed answer service is one option," says senior policy officer Gill Keep. "And if more boys access that in their own time, I see that as giving them confidence to talk about their problems. It would be a shame if boys related only to the Net when really they need to talk to a person."
Melissa Roske, agony aunt at J17 magazine, also sounds a warning: "The Internet is a brilliant way to reach boys, but my concern is that the unqualified are doling out advice like chocolate chip cookies. In the States you've got sites like Dear Miss Cyberspace where Rurprecht Roosterdamus the Psychic Chicken gives advice. Need I say more? Magazines are still the best place for agony aunts because the information is regulated, qualified and checked."
To reach the directory of online advice centres go to www.thesite.org.uk.
'INVISIBLE' SON FOUND HELP ONLINE
Marc, 17, felt suddenly "invisible" when his mother remarried, adding a stepfather and stepbrother to the household. He felt his stepfather was "picking on him", his stepbrother received favourable treatment and his mother no longer had time for him. "I couldn't say anything to my mates - they'd think I was a spoilt brat.
"I'd read my girlfriend's magazines, and they did have boys' problems, so I thought about writing to them. But I knew it would take ages and I'd have to keep buying the magazine to see if my letter was answered. I thought of ringing Childline, but I reckoned my problem wasn't serious enough. It wasn't as if I was about to commit suicide or anything.
"Chat rooms on the Internet were interesting but frustrating too, because often people just tell you to 'f*** off' if you want to talk about something they don't.
"But Matthew Whyman's chat room advice seems the best of both worlds: instant answers and somebody sensible to listen to you. Mat was reassuring and told me to talk to my mum on her own, to plan what I was going to say and to try not to get upset. It was comforting to be listened to, not to be ignored or regarded as a sort of joke.
"It was easy to write down what I felt - easier for me than talking to an adult, which usually makes me feel stupid. And it's reassuring that I was anonymous and that no one would know I'd used an agony uncle.
"I did talk to Mum eventually, and the situation has improved. I would go to an online agony uncle again, and I would definitely try Childline online. It's so much easier to chat at your own pace and in absolute privacy."