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Web Confessions: Guilty Pleasure or Healthy Habit?

Telling your secret confessions online can be a little risky – but it also can be therapeutic
WebMD the Magazine - Feature

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.

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“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 functioning.

“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.”

Reviewed on January 23, 2009

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