Understanding the Distress Disclosure Practices of Chinese Social Media Users


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date28 Jun 2023


Psychological distress is highly prevalent worldwide. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of individuals struggling with mental health disruption reached the peak of the past 15 years. While different actions and coping strategies could be taken to handle psychological distress and unpleasant experiences, distress disclosure—the self-revelation of unpleasant personal experiences, feelings, or thoughts—offers therapeutic benefits and facilitate professional or social support and help. Although there are numerous empirical studies investigating self-disclosure and its specific forms, including distress disclosure, in social media settings, majority of these studies focused on the disclosure of sensitive or taboo-related events on anonymous social media platforms and paid little attention to the disclosure of more generic or non-specific event based distress, it, therefore, limited our understanding of the motives, practices as well as outcomes of (anonymous) social media distress disclosure. Besides, existing research on social media distress disclosure tends to examine users’ distress disclosure to a specific group of audiences or the overall distress disclosure tendency without considering the target audiences, the relative importance of the prominent factors predicting one’s distress disclosure to people with diverse relational closeness on social media remains unclear. The research gaps presented in the literature warrant further investigations on social media distress disclosure.

In this thesis, I examine the phenomenon of distress disclosure on social media based on a dataset collected from a Chinese anonymous social media platform and four samples of participants from mainland China. Overall, this thesis has the following objectives: (1) to identify social media users’ primary purpose of anonymously disclosing personally distressing information to strangers and what have been mainly disclosed; (2) to ascertain and assess the outcomes of anonymous social media distress disclosure; (3) to identify the underlining reasons and motives leading social media users to disclose unpleasant feelings and emotional problems to online strangers while concealing the same distressing personal information from close relational others; (4) to examine and establish a measure of multi-dimensional distress disclosure risk perception which assess both self-oriented and other-oriented risk; (5) to ascertain the theoretical antecedents (i.e., situational and non-situational factors) of social media distress disclosure to different types of target audiences; and (6) to clarify the mediation role of social media distress disclosure on the relationship between perceived life distress and psychological well-being and the intervening effects of risk-benefit calculation and satisfaction with social media distress disclosure on this mediated relationship.

The current thesis contains three parts:
Part one reported a study that applied quantitative (manual and automatic content analysis) and qualitative (thematic analysis) approaches to investigate distress disclosures and responses from an anonymous social media platform in China. The findings suggested that Chinese people disclose mostly relational and mental health issues on anonymous social media platforms and often disclose distress without explicitly seeking social support. The responses from the online strangers, although mostly supportive, could be unsympathetic sometimes, with some replies encouraging the disclosers to hurt themselves or commit suicide. Yet, regardless of the number of supportive and unsympathetic replies received after the distress discourse, posters who disclosed distress on an anonymous social media platform presented less negative sentiment after disclosing distress on the anonymous social media platform. The reflexive thematic analysis revealed the underlying reasons some Chinese people decided to disclose distress on anonymous social media while concealing the same distressing information from people with existing connection. Six themes, namely personal disclosure preferences, accessibility of suitable audiences, tellability of distressing life events, anticipation of insubstantial benefits, potential backfires, and concerns for close relational others, were identified. It suggested that the decisions of disclosing and concealing distress as well as the selection of audiences for distress disclosure could be affected by different considerations.

Part two reported the development of an original measurement for accessing individuals’ distress disclosure risk perceptions. Using four independent Chinese samples, a multi-faceted, 16-item distress disclosure risk scale was developed. The scale includes three subscales that measure different aspects of perceived distress disclosure risk: face threats, communication burden and control, and imposition. The construct reliability and validity of the measurement were tested.

Part three reported a study that examined the theoretical antecedents of social media distress disclosure and tested a multiple moderated mediation model concerning the link between perceived level of life distress, social media distress disclosure, and psychological well-being using a Chinese sample. The study revealed that the associations between situational and non-situational factors and social media distress disclosure vary if the types of target listeners (from close relational others to strangers and mental health professionals) were considered. It also indicated that frequency of social media distress disclosure potentially mediates the association between the frequency and intensity of distressors and psychological well-being. And the mediation effects were moderated by risk-benefit calculation and satisfaction with social media distress disclosure, respectively.