We know that young people are prone to making themselves vulnerable to criticism and attack online. While they are looking for a platform where they can interact, they also need a safe place online where they are not exposed to the usual social media highs and lows. A place that allows them to move around freely and ‘talk’ to peers, but which is moderated and secure.

In creating such a space where they can discuss their mental health and get support, we know that anonymity is key.

It is the way we can build a bridge to the trust needed for young people to share often deeply personal information. We hear from children and young people who are bullied, who have been sexually abused, who are having feelings they don’t understand and who are self-harming. These young people need to feel truly safe with their counsellors. Allowing them to remain anonymous and in control of their therapeutic journey is the bridge that can lead them to a place of trust.

I’m in no way arguing that anonymous digital therapy is better than face-to-face support. They represent different therapeutic experiences – and are both vital. We work closely with countless specialist service professionals who offer face-to-face support. We also provide face-to-face counselling ourselves. And from this perspective – backed up by research – we see an interesting difference in the way therapy happens online, compared to face-to-face. Both approaches illicit very different responses and lead to different degrees of disclosure.

Research by Hanley et al in 2016 found that young people were more likely to set personal growth goals when working online. The authors questioned whether this was down to the more explorative and slower paced nature of online therapy, based on research by Bambling et al.

The Education Policy Institute’s 2017 report quoted this research. It stated that:

“16.9 per cent of the goals set by young people using online counselling were related to intimate relationships whereas none of the goals set by those using face-to-face services were related to this. This may indicate that young people are more willing to discuss these more personal issues in the anonymous context of online counselling.”

Online counselling can offer a new intimacy formed through words alone. Everything is built on this exchange. The safe space offered by both types of counselling is perhaps intensified online as the client can focus on themselves completely. This disinhibition works for the young person by allowing them to talk about personal issues safely and without judgement. Shame-based issues, for example, that are extremely difficult for a child or young person to express verbally in front of someone, may be more easily expressed through the written word.

A recent report from the Education Policy Institute asked young people why they chose online counselling. Almost half of the reasons given were associated with anonymity. Most said they wanted to discuss their issues without their parents or anyone else knowing. Previous research has found that young people were more likely to set personal growth goals when working online. Researchers have hypothesised that this could be down to the more explorative and slower paced nature of online therapy.

In designing safe online services for children and young people to get help, we should listen to what they want and continue to make support services as accessible as we can. If we accept that anonymity is a vital component of that bridge to trust, perhaps then we will begin to see the positive change in mental health that we are all working so hard to achieve.

Aaron Sefi

MA (couns)