Are You There, Reddit? It’s me, Anon123
By Nika Ablao, SML Research Assistant
Why some social media sites can be the perfect place to talk about tough mental health issues.
We have transformed into a society where our whole lives can be shared online. With just the simple click of a button, we can share pictures, status messages, or a variety of other posts with a few hundred of our closest friends — or an even wider audience of complete strangers — at our leisure. Social media has allowed us to reach out to an even greater network than our predecessors could have ever imagined. However, people aren’t using social media just to share pictures of their weekend in Mexico City or of their avocado toast and mimosas from their Sunday brunch.
Surprisingly, people more readily open up online than they would in person. For example, when asked in person, medical patients often hold back more embarrassing symptoms or behaviors from their caregivers. However, when communicating via email, they are less likely to withhold these details. Similarly, only 20% of patients will report suicidal feelings over the phone, while a staggering 50% do so via e-mail.
A series of recent studies analyzed this phenomenon specifically in Reddit forums dedicated to conversations about mental health. The researchers wanted to know whether there was a difference between posts that were posted through temporary, one-use, “throwaway” accounts and those that had been posted with regular accounts. While posts made by regular accounts can be traced to the user that posted the account, posts by throwaway accounts are untraceable. Because of this, users use throwaway accounts when they seek anonymity. This sense of anonymity has been found to be especially taken advantage of by users in the mental health subreddit — a user is six times more likely to use a throwaway account when posting to the mental health subreddit than any other subreddit.
Users often cite anonymity as their reason for using a throwaway account in the posts themselves, saying that it was “embarrassing” for them to talk about the content that they had shared and would not want their friends who knew their regular account to see. There are marked differences between the content in posts by throwaway accounts and regular accounts. Throwaway account users exhibit a much more unenthusiastic outlook on life and create posts with “negative emotion”. They vent about their mental health problems, and speak freely about their personal fears and beliefs. These users seem to be much less involved with the world around them, and talk about themselves (not in a self-absorbed sort of way; they often lament about their shortcomings) instead of other people, objects, or ideas. Their posts are usually lengthier than those of regular users,indicating a sense of freedom given to them through the anonymity enabled by the throwaway account. They use this guise to go into detail about sensitive subjects, with many posts from these users delving into confessions of suicidal thoughts, self-hatred, and traumatic past events.
While these users do not wish to reveal their identity, many of them do realize that they do need help, and ask the Reddit community for advice and vocalize a desire for help. Their requests are often filled quickly — posts here receive responses quickly and often, giving the users the support, if only virtual, that they may need. The promise of anonymity and a supportive community fosters an ideal place for people to speak freely about their struggles and receive advice and support from others that had gone or are going through the same tribulations that they are presently enduring.
We don’t generally think of public semi-public social media sites as places where people can get effective support for mental health issues. However, the popularity of Reddit — and the ease with which throwaway accounts can be used — shows that sometimes, anonymity can be the key that helps people get the help they need.