Amsterdam School of Communication Research / ASCoR

Positive effect of sharing negative emotions online

5 December 2018

Many adolescents and young adults share negative emotions via social media on a daily basis: worries about exams, doubts over decisions needing to be made, anxiety towards certain situations. Friends in their social networks then provide feedback. Communication scientist Carmina Rodríguez Hidalgo, who investigated this process of sharing and providing feedback, discovered positive effects on adjusting emotions.

People enjoy creating solidarity with one another by sharing their emotions. While this situation has been going on for ages, what is the verdict on sharing emotions via social media? What are the effects of sharing, and what happens during the process of posting emotions and receiving feedback on them?

Research into sharing negative emotions

Carmina Rodríguez Hidalgo studied this process mostly among young adults aged 18-22, with particular attention to sharing negative emotions. She did so using three experiments: one among students in the Netherlands, an international experiment involving young adults and a longitudinal questionnaire among Chilean school students. Hidalgo looked at the platforms WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, making a distinction between the processes of sharing emotions and providing feedback, two actions which most studies analyse as a single concept.

Results of the experiments

The results of the experiments indicated that the participants were better able to regulate their negative emotions after having received helpful feedback. For example, Hidalgo studied the moment that school students in Chile had to take a compulsory exam that determined which subsequent education they would be allowed to follow, making it an important and potentially stressful occasion. The students reported a reduction in feelings of stress after sharing online and receiving feedback, even weeks later. Yet at the same time, they reported an increase in stress after face-to-face contact, especially shortly after having taken the exam. The results of the other two experiments also indicated positive effects of sharing online and receiving feedback.

Positive effects explained

How can the positive effect of sharing online be explained, while face-to-face contact can even lead to negative effects?

According to Hidalgo, the explanation involves a combination of the focus and duration of sharing online and providing feedback. In face-to-face contact, we have difficulty responding to negative emotions, experience more social pressure and distraction, and quickly tend to adopt the role of showing empathy. In addition, it could prove more difficult for the sharer to disclose the entire situation.

Online friends are better able to focus on the emotion in question, while receiving more information about the cause and thus being able to provide better feedback as a result. Friends can subsequently provide feedback for longer due to the ease of seeking each other out on social media. As a result, these friends are able to help one another develop a fresh perspective on the negative emotion and re-evaluate the situation.

Strengthening effect of supportive response

Hidalgo concludes: 'By expressing negative emotions online in a context where you can get helpful feedback, you can grow to feel more stable; whereas the supportive response of others makes you feel even better.' This effect, which is strongest among good friends, had not yet been studied very much in relation to negative and stressful situations.

Advice on strengthening the positive effect

Hidalgo has advice on how to strengthen the positive effect of sharing and providing feedback online.

  • Describe your entire emotional experience, as this process increases the chances of receiving effective feedback.
  • Tailor feedback to the needs of the receiver; for example, consider whether someone requires information or perhaps affection.
  • Provide supportive feedback throughout the entire experience of an event.

Hidalgo would like to advise parents of adolescents and young adults also to provide feedback to emotions that their children share via social media, given the apparent effect.

Publication details

Ms C.T. Rodríguez Hidalgo: Bits of Emotion: The Process and Outcomes of Sharing Emotions Online. Supervisors: Professor E.S.H. Tan and Professor P.W.J. Verlegh (VU Amsterdam). Hidalgo defended her thesis on Tuesday, 4 December.

Published by  Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences