Abstract: A Content Analysis of Self-Disclosure and Social Support-Seeking Strategies Used and Responses in a Depression Help SubReddit

◆ Brandon M. Walling, Michigan State University

Interpersonal communication research has demonstrated that disclosing sensitive information can be an effective way to obtain social support from one’s support network. However, despite these findings that indicate self-disclosure is a critical step on the road to recovery and diagnosis for individuals experiencing symptoms of mental illness, findings show that the stereotypes and prejudices associated with those types of symptoms are salient to these individuals, which decreases the likelihood and effectiveness of mental illness disclosures. This increased risk of vulnerability puts pressure on disclosure decisions considering who, how, and when to disclose sensitive information, if at all. Research in computer-mediated communication has demonstrated that the nature of the online context, such as the reduction of communicative clues, like anonymity, can increase levels of disclosure. Reddit is one social network where individuals can post or respond to content across different subReddit communities, and previous studies have analyzed posts and comments in different communities to investigate how individuals seek social support and encouragement, or for access to health-related information.

By taking an interactional approach, the current study utilized one specific subReddit community, r/Depression, to explore the impact that disclosure and support-seeking strategies used in initial posts have on responses and social support offered in comments. This community self-identifies as providing “peer support for anyone struggling with depression” and has over 500,000 subscribed users and ten moderators that filter the content to fit the rules posted on their home page. In order to analyze data from the subReddit to test hypotheses and explore research questions, a content analysis coding protocol was applied to a random sample of 250 initial posts and all of the comments directly responding to the initial posts. Two paid graduate research assistants categorized initial post units into self-disclosure and social-support-seeking strategies and comment units into interpersonal response strategies and the type of social support offered. The coding scheme was developed by the author, based on relevant disclosure, social support, health, interpersonal, and computer-mediated communication research. Content was unitized into thought units and analyzed at the unit-level and at the post- or comment-level.

Findings show that the majority of initial posts were indirect, and posts that used indirect disclosure and support-seeking strategies received more responses and more emotional social support than posts without indirect strategies. Initial posts with at least one direct disclosure strategy received informational social support more than posts without any direct disclosure strategies. Surprisingly, there was a statistically significant, negative association between direct disclosure strategies and confirming responses, contrary to what was hypothesized, posts with more direct disclosures received fewer confirming responses than posts with fewer direct disclosures. One possible explanation is the influence that the variance in content of the initial post disclosures might have on the responses offered in the comments. Implications discussed warrant future research in the investigation of the impact that self-disclosure and social support-seeking strategies have on the interpersonal responses and types of social support offered, especially in the context of discussions about experiencing symptoms of mental illness.