More than half of sexual abuse survivors do not report their experience to authorities or seek help. Candidly talking about one’s abuse and asking for help often means taking a social risk because the response can be stigmatizing. Researchers suggest survivors — particularly men — may be more comfortable using social media to discuss their experience and ask for help in an anonymous forum.
The research team, led by Drexel University doctoral student Nazanin Andalibi, wanted to understand how survivors interact online where they are able to mask their identities. They studied public posts on three abuse-related Reddit forums (subreddits) for most of 2014, pulling a random sample of 200 posts from the more than 2,000. They compared what users disclosed and how they sought support between those using pseudonyms and those who using one-time-use accounts known as throw-aways.
The researchers found that men were significantly more likely to use throw-away accounts when posting about sexual abuse, and those using throw-away accounts were significantly more likely to ask for help.
The authors write that the added layer of anonymity offered by throw-away accounts provides an important level of security for victims to disclose their abuse for the first time in their lives.
“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 write. “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.”
The researchers suggest subreddit moderators and members who want to provide emotional support pay particular attention to throw-away accounts.
“Talking about one’s experiences, feelings and thoughts, and asking for support, are fundamental needs that often remain unmet for abuse survivors,” Andalibi said in a media release. “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.”
Coauthor and Andalibi’s PhD adviser, Andrea Forte, noted that many of the users they studied are weighing a difficult decision between choosing a higher level of perceived anonymity and potentially not being believed by using a throw-away account against using an identifiable account to gain more credibility and potentially divulging their identity. This decision factors into what they are comfortable saying and what kind of help they will ask for. However, the important thing is that they have found a place where they feel comfortable enough to disclose this sensitive information.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.