Surprise! Internet Comments Can Be Good for Your Health

A study finds that blogging is therapeutic for teens -- and that having an open comments section makes it even more so.

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A study (PDF) from psychologists at the University of Haifa, Israel, is garnering some attention with for its findings that blogging can help socially awkward teens. The New York Times ran it in its "Studied" column, with "the gist" boiled down to "Blogging is therapeutic for teenagers." The site io9 ran it under the headline "Science proves blogging is therapeutic -- at least for teenagers." But read past the top findings and you'll find something more surprising, and, also, somehow, more comforting: The teenagers who got the most out of their blogging experiment were those whose blogs were open to commenters.

As the Times explains:

In all the groups, the greatest improvement in mood occurred among those bloggers who wrote about their problems and allowed commenters to respond.

Interestingly, the commenters on the blogs were overwhelmingly supportive. "The only kind of surprise we had was that almost all comments made by readers were very positive and constructive in trying to offer support for distressed bloggers," Dr. [Azy] Barak wrote in an e-mail.

. . .

"People will write in the comments, 'I remember when I was in your shoes' " and 'Don't worry -- you'll get through the SATs!' and it's wonderful," she said. "It really helps put everything into perspective."

For anyone who kept a journal growing up, the benefits of writing are obvious. But the Internet seems like a hostile place for a socially inept teen to open up. Aren't bullies and other trolls going to pounce on these kids?

In a way, the study is a welcome reminder that Internet comment sections have gotten a bad rap. In the defense of people everywhere, the claim is often advanced that the ranks of Internet commenters are not filled with a representative sampling of humanity, but the people who choose to participate. But as this study shows, this is true but it also doesn't go far enough: Bad Internet comment sections aren't even representative of Internet comment sections themselves.

The trolls, the bullies, they go where they can be seen. Some of the most well-trafficked sites on the Internet have the worst commenters. In general, smaller blogs with dedicated readers -- whether personal journals or niche-interest publications -- have lively, thoughtful, and smart conversations in their comments sections.

With commenters like that, who needs friends? And that's precisely the point: They *are* friends -- or at least they are another human, at some other far-off computer, providing the guidance or simply the listening ear that friends provide. Whatever therapeutic powers journaling has, they are amplified by the comfort of a human response.

The problem, of course, is the risk. For a teen going through a rough time, what is the power of one bully? Is the benefit of comments outweighed by the chance someone will use the comments section to mock or tease? The authors of the study recommend that question for further investigation.

Image: Magic Madzik/Flickr.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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