According to a study published this February in the Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, researchers have found that survivors of sexual abuse may be able to benefit from the anonymity of online forums.
The study was led by Nazanin Andalibi, a doctoral candidate at Drexel University, and advised by Andrea Forte, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Computing & Informatics.
The researchers combed through publically available posts on the social networking website Reddit. They examined three abuse-related forums, known as subreddits, in which people share their experiences with sexual abuse and speak with other survivors, not unlike a support group. They analyzed a random group of 200 posts (out of a sample of 2,000) to determine what survivors of sexual abuse were disclosing about their history, how they sought support, and how their disclosures varied depending on whether or not they were using an online pseudonym or a one-time-use account known as a “throwaway” for an extra degree of anonymity.
The researchers found that many survivors of sexual assault were willing to contribute to the forums. In fact, some of the people on the subreddits felt comfortable enough in the environment to disclose their experience with sexual abuse for the very first time.
“Talking about one’s experiences, feelings and thoughts, and asking for support, are fundamental needs that often remain unmet for abuse survivors,” explained Andalibi. “In our analysis we found that people sometimes referred to unmet disclosure-related needs when posting online. In other words, sometimes people have never shared these experiences with anyone before online or off and they feel they need to.”
Men were more likely than women to use a throwaway account to talk about their experiences and/or seek support. Individuals who had never shared their history before were also more likely to use a throwaway account rather than attach their story to their online pseudonym. These results indicate that adding an extra layer of anonymity can sometimes be helpful for sexual abuse survivors, especially for people who have never divulged their story before and for groups who often experience an added stigma when telling their stories.
Why is this important?
Sexual abuse is still highly stigmatized in the United States. Many people are afraid to come forward with their stories for fear that they won’t be believed or that others will judge them for what happened.
“Many abuse and rape events remain unreported to authorities or undisclosed to friends, family and mental health professionals,” explain the authors. “These online forums have created alternative spaces where disclosures that might have otherwise remained silent have a voice, and people can seek support.”
In other words, by providing survivors with an opportunity to remain anonymous, the internet can allow people to find support they would have never received otherwise. Anonymous forums and ultra-anonymous throwaway identities may make all the difference for a person struggling with memories of his or her assault.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.