These days, more and more people are engaged in “web confessions” -- baring
their secrets to online communities, often anonymously. It can feel great in
the short-term; it’s a chance to come clean about long-held secrets and bond
with others who have had similar experiences. But is it a healthy habit?
For Barbara Smith, a 45-year-old homemaker from Madison, N.C., confessing
online very definitely was healthy. Smith had been married for 28 years to her
high-school sweetheart and was the mother of 14 children. Thousands of people
read her blog and asked her for Bible-based advice about marriage and
parenting. But Smith had secrets: Her husband’s affair had nearly broken their
marriage, and a teenage daughter hadn’t spoken to her for years. When her son
told her he was gay, she knew it was time to tell the full story.
“Nothing in my past had bothered me, but this was something that was
happening right now,” Smith says. “And I wondered if these people would want me
as their Bible resource if they knew I was accepting a gay son.” Smith was
surprised and relieved that her post telling the full story was met with
acceptance and love.
Web confessions and immunity
Confession is the latest online obsession. Hundreds of thousands of
Americans go online to read about other people’s sins and peccadilloes on
websites that promise anonymity for those who dish their dirt. Why do people do
this? Beyond the thrill of voyeurism and self-exposure, experts say baring the
soul seems to be good for the body. Disclosing traumatic events and
uncomfortable emotions enhances physical health and well-being. In one study,
writing down bad thoughts for just four days improved immune system
“Any time we increase stress -- and we assume harboring guilty secrets is a
stressor -- we tax our bodies. And that taxation shows up in immune function,”
says Jeffrey Janata, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Case Western
Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.
James Pennebaker, PhD, chair of the psychology department at the University
of Texas, who studies the effects of confession on the immune system, found it
boosted the quantity of type 1 helper cells, white blood cells that help
increase the efficiency of the immune system. And a 2004 study of HIV patients
showed a significant increase in virus-fighting white blood cells after six
months of regular writing about emotional topics.
The risks of web confessions
Webfessions put a modern spin on the age-old tradition of confessing to
another person. There are risks, though. People have to consider that they may
write or record things they don’t want others to ever read or know about. Also,
anything you post on the Internet stays there forever because it goes over
thousands of servers and onto possibly millions of hard drives.
Smith had always felt she didn’t have the right to give advice to people in
her church because of her troubles. The anonymity of the Internet helped her
get over that. “It is not only good, but necessary for us to share our troubles
with each other. Carrying deep burdens weighs us down.”
James W. Pennebaker, chair, Department of Psychology, University of
Texas. DailyConfession.com. Smyth, J. Journal of Consulting and
Clinical Psychology 66(1) 174-184. 1988. Pennebaker, J. et al., Journal
of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245. (1988). James
Pennebaker, “Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice, on University of Texas
Department of Psychology website.