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How Do We Respond When Others Share Bad News Online?

New research explores reactions to negative news shared on social media.

When we reveal personal information to other people, it typically increases intimacy. But when it is seen as inappropriate, self-disclosure can backfire. In the age of social media, the dangers of over-disclosure are even higher because the audience for these disclosures is large and it's hard to really anticipate who will see your posts. In fact, a nationally representative survey of Facebook users found that 36 percent of users strongly disliked others sharing too much information about themselves, suggesting that inappropriate posts run the risk of alienating others.

Social networking sites offer us the ability to disclose to friends with minimal effort, and they don't require us to get up the courage to approach someone face-to-face. So there could be benefits to sharing personal information with others on social media. In fact, research has shown that disclosing information online with friends, in a reciprocal back and forth, tends to increase intimacy.

But what about specifically negative disclosures? Not everything that's personal is necessarily negative. Therefore, research showing the benefits of reciprocal self-disclosure between Facebook friends may not apply equally to negative and positive information. How do others respond if we share bad news on social media, rather than just general personal information or positive events? In fact, people are especially likely to share good news, rather than bad news, on social media. This means negative disclosures are fairly unusual. There is some evidence that people don't like negative disclosures on social media. For example, one study found that people disliked it when Facebook users posted memorials for loved ones and took their grief online. In another study, participants evaluated the 10 most recent Facebook status updates that were made by users they didn't know — and those who expressed a lot of negative emotions were less liked than those whose posts reflected a more positive outlook.

However, all of this research either asked people how they generally felt about certain types of disclosures or asked them to evaluate everyday disclosures from strangers out of context. In a study recently published in Personality and Individual Differences, Lauren Saling and colleagues conducted an experimental study in which participants evaluated other people's negative self-disclosures, imagining that these disclosures were made by a close friend.

Participants read three social media posts and were asked to imagine that these posts were made by their three closest friends. All three posts involved the poster revealing a negative life event, but the events differed in how severe they were. The least severe was a relationship breakup, followed by a relative being diagnosed with cancer, followed by a friend committing suicide. To simulate the environment of Facebook, for each post, participants were able to have a Facebook reaction to the post (they could indicate no response, or use like, sad, angry, or surprised emoticons) and they were able to write a comment. Participants also rated how comfortable they felt with the post. In order to allow the researchers to compare participants' level of comfort with online and offline disclosures, participants also rated how comfortable they would be if their friend had disclosed this same information in person.

The results showed that for all three posts, people were more comfortable with offline than online disclosure, especially the two more serious events—a relative's health condition and a friend's suicide. Interestingly, people who were high in the trait of agreeableness (that is, those who are warm and tend to highly value getting along with others) were more likely to respond with an emoticon or comment on the post. Older participants were also more likely to react or comment on the posts.

This study provides evidence that when it comes to revealing major negative events to friends, it is probably better to do so in person. However, the conclusions we can draw from this study are limited for several reasons: First, all of the negative disclosures involved not just something that happened to the poster, but something that happened to another person. A relationship breakup announcement is about both members of the relationship, and a relative's cancer diagnosis and friend's suicide are clearly about other people. Thus, people may have responded negatively to the fact that the poster was revealing personal information about other people online without necessarily getting their consent.

It is also important to consider that this study was only in the context of a close friend revealing personal information. What if it was a casual friend or an acquaintance? People might be offended that their close friend would choose to disclose personal information online, rather than tell them face-to-face, making their reactions more negative. On the other hand, imagining the post came from a casual acquaintance could make people judge it even more harshly because their feelings that it was inappropriate to share it on social media might override their concern for a friend they don't know well. Nonetheless, people might be more comfortable hearing bad news from a casual friend online than in person precisely because they don't feel that close to the person.

Despite the limitations of this particular study, it's probably still good advice to save your most personal, negative self-disclosures for the intimacy of one-on-one interaction, while making sure that whoever you're sharing it with is an appropriate audience.