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#MeToo: Stanford scholars weigh in on social media campaign exposing sexual assault

"What do you think of this 'me too' thing on Facebook?" my best friend texted me on Sunday afternoon. I didn't know what she was referring to at the time but, sure enough, a series of posts containing the #MeToo hashtag -- shared by people who have been victims of sexual harassment or abuse as a way to spread awareness -- started to bubble up on my feed later that day.

What prompted people (it's not only women) to share such personal stories on their social channels, and how might it ultimately benefit them? Curious about the psychology behind such sharing, I reached out to a few experts today for their thoughts.

While many things can trigger people to take this sort of action, Emma Seppälä, PhD, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford and author of The Happiness Track, told me that "having your friends and those close to you will help give you courage to do the same. When people similar to you are willing to disclose something, it can set up a ripple effect. You can become more comfortable being vulnerable."

David Spiegel, MD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said while people often feel humiliated, ashamed or guilty over being assaulted or harassed, making public declarations about their experience is a way of saying, "I shouldn't be ashamed. I didn’t deserve it. And I'm not alone."

Spiegel has spent decades studying the effectiveness of cancer support groups, and he compared those posting #MeToo messages to patients in these groups. A cancer diagnosis can make a patient feel alienated from the rest of the world, but finding a community allows a "liability to turn into an asset," he explained. By sharing their stories and being there for others, patients often find they feel stronger and can cope better with their disease.

Like cancer patients, people who share their stories online can see similar – and other – benefits, Seppälä said:

A feeling of aloneness or alienation in a situation of abuse can be detrimental — a huge body of research shows that loneliness has devastating effect. Realizing that others have gone through the same kind of pain can both give you a sense of community and also increase your sense of empathy and understanding for other people.

But what of those people who wind up feeling distressed – not hopeful – when they see an increasing number of friends, colleagues and loved ones declare, often for the first time, that they'd been assaulted and harassed? (Full disclosure: I've felt more depressed than empowered over what I've seen in my personal feed.) That’s certainly a downside of such a campaign, said Seppälä. The social postings can also cause anger or exacerbate feelings of victimization, she pointed out. “Neither of those states are beneficial for our health and well-being, and they may not put us in the right frame of mind to come up with constructive solutions and conversations.”

But the good of these brave declarations likely far outweighs the bad. From Seppälä:

What I hope this campaign will do is trigger greater empathy for the deep vulnerability that we all share, that children have, that women have, and that men also have. Through this awareness we can become more compassionate, and gentle with each other. We can perhaps learn to curb our own desires so that they do not inflict suffering on others. And we can try to stop the cycle of violence.

Previously: Grief in the time of social media, Patient tells how social media helped her overcome the "shame" of her eating disorder and Can social media improve the mental health of disaster survivors?
Photo by Shutterstock

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