For many parents, the concept of ‘online anonymity’ has almost exclusively negative connotations. The dangers of so-called ‘cyberbullying’ are regularly highlighted in the media, and are rightly cause for concern. But there are also ways in which online anonymity can benefit young people. While not necessarily as headline-grabbing, these benefits should nonetheless be acknowledged when we discuss children’s online worlds.
As of the second quarter of 2016, Facebook had 1.71 billion monthly active users. Though incredibly large, this number is hardly surprising given that Facebook is potentially the most popular form of social media. Facebook’s policy states that users must be over the age of 13, however, 7.5 million of these profiles are operated by users younger than 13 years old, with many being under the age of 10.
Mental health difficulties amongst children and adolescents are on the rise, and the ever-growing world of social media is often held responsible. One recent report found that 27% of children who spend more than three hours a day on social media have symptoms of mental ill-health, with social media use being claimed to cause a delay to emotional and social development, as well as to encourage negative social comparison.
However, forms of social media such as Facebook and Snapchat, which provide a means of connecting with others and forming relations, are far from being the biggest cause of concern for parents.
The website Ask.fm has received a huge amount of negative press related to young people’s mental health. The site allows users to anonymously ask and answer each other’s questions, being particularly popular among 11-14 year olds. Parents’ biggest issue with this anonymity is its potential to be a platform for cyber-bullying.
Online anonymity gives children the ability to say what they want without fearing any consequences. It is easy for them to become detached from the comments they are making, forgetting that the users reading them are real people too. Even when comments are not intended to be hurtful, the depersonalisation can mean they are easily misconstrued. Ask.fm has been linked with a number of incidents, including 6 teenage suicides.
Due to the stigma arising from the risks associated with children being able to post anonymously online, the potential benefits are often ignored. However, although there are problems with online anonymity, its many advantages are also worth exploring.
Allowing users to withhold their identity often creates a greater sense of equality, and reduce the impact of social norms. The element of privacy afforded by anonymity can be particularly important on online support forums, such as LGBT online support communities, where users don’t want to be judged or identified. The anonymity on these sites helps to increased self-acceptance, which for many people promoted their coming out as gay to their family and friends. Research has shown that self-disclosure is not only higher on websites such as this, but that privacy is crucial to the users’ psychological wellbeing.
Due to the stigma around the risks of children being able to anonymously post anything online, its benefits are often ignored. These benefits extend to mental health support. The website kooth.com gives young people struggling with mental health difficulties access to anonymous online support forums, as well as providing information about mental health and an online journal to write about how they’re feeling. Kooth.com has also introduced online counselling, providing young people with vital support that they may not access publicly. Given that one in 10 young people aged 5-16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% have not sought appropriate interventions, anonymous online support could encourage them to seek the help they need in a safe, non-judgemental environment. In this situation, being anonymous helps young people reveal how they are really feeling, and can be the first step to getting them mental health support.