The total anonymity offered in online forums has led to a dramatic increase in supportive discussions for sexual abuse survivors, particularly men, who are often more reluctant to speak out or seek help, according to a new study led by Drexel University.
“Talking about one’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts, and asking for support, are fundamental needs that often remain unmet for abuse survivors,” said Nazanin Andalibi, study leader and doctoral candidate at Drexel.
“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.”
For the study, the researchers looked at publicly available posts on the social networking/news website Reddit in three abuse-related forums, called subreddits.
The messages had been posted over the course of 10 months and written by a mix of participants, called redditors. Some posters used pseudonyms and others created one-time-use accounts dubbed “throwaways” to gain an added degree of anonymity.
The researchers analyzed a random group of 200 posts, taken from a sample of more than 2,000, with roughly equal representation from pseudonymous posts and throwaway posts. This was meant to find out what survivors of sexual abuse are disclosing on Reddit, how they seek support, and how these disclosures vary depending on whether or not they’re coming from a throwaway account.
The findings show that men who had survived abuse were more likely than women to use throwaway accounts to tell their stories and seek support. This indicates that there is significance to providing users an additional layer of anonymity in the form of a throwaway account.
The authors suggest that “a variety of masculinity ideologies, norms, and gender roles play a part in discouraging men’s help-seeking behavior. So this finding highlights the importance of anonymous platforms and identity segmentation tools, such as throwaway accounts on Reddit, to encourage support-seeking in populations that otherwise find it hard to self-disclose and ask for help.”
The findings also suggest that Reddit’s option of a “throwaway account” offers such an additional level of security that victims are willing to disclose their abuse for the very first time in their life. Many of these victims are asking for help and support.
“A significant finding here is that Reddit is used as a platform for first-time disclosures of sexual assault and rape, and that these first time disclosures are significantly linked to support seeking,” the authors said.
“This is important because of the highly stigmatized context of sexual abuse and rape. Many abuse and rape events remain unreported to authorities or undisclosed to friends, family, and mental health professionals. These online forums have created alternative spaces where disclosures that might have otherwise remained silent have a voice, and people can seek support.”