Can venting your anger online make you feel worse?

anima anger online

Ranting online gives short-lived catharsis but can lead to longer-term anger issues. (istockphoto.com/KyKyPy3HuK)

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Those famous words of Mark Twain have been given a contemporary twist in research carried out to discover the impact of venting anger online. Can the acid of anger come back to harm you?

Psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay investigated Anger on the internet: the perceived value of rant-sites. They carried out two studies to look at the way people express anger anonymously on blogs, social networks and on rant sites (forums specially created for venting anger), how they feel after ranting, and the emotional impact of reading angry posts. They particularly wanted to find out if venting anger can be cathartic in the short and long term.

All participants in the first study said they felt calm and relaxed immediately after ranting online. But those who vented frequently were found to become angrier rather than calmer. The study found that frequent ranters have higher anger scores and “express their anger in more maladaptive ways than the norm”. They were also found to demonstrate anger ‘offline’ too, averaging one physical fight and two verbal fights per month, and half of them had been told by others that they had an anger problem. As for the emotional impact of reading rants online in study two, people became less happy and sadder after reading the rants.

The researchers concluded: “Reading and writing online rants are likely unhealthy practices as those who do them often are angrier and have more maladaptive expressions styles than others. Likewise, reading and writing online rants are associated with negative shifts in mood for the vast majority of people.”

So, what to make of these results? They are partly in line with catharsis theory, as emotional release can be healing. But, importantly, only if it is directed in an appropriate way. Unlike expressive writing, where you’re encouraged to spill your feelings onto the page as a way of working through emotional problems, venting is “void of any structure” and doesn’t have an end in mind other than letting off steam (which then causes more anger in the long term). But through the  process of expressive writing, the person spilling their stresses on the page learns to face and ‘own’ their issues.

But in the online-venting study, there were some revealing responses from participants:

  • 67% appreciated other people commenting on their posts.
  • 42% wanted validation for their feelings.
  • 29% would prefer to talk to someone.

It seems that angry people want to be listened to, acknowledged, and validated. They want their feelings to be seen, heard and understood. Perhaps their reason for venting anger online anonymously is a fear that their anger cannot be tolerated by the person or thing they’re angry about, and they’re afraid of repercussions? And perhaps they’d secretly love to trade the bitterness of their acid for the milk of human kindness?

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