Adolescents' Sexual Self-Disclosure on the Internet: Deindividuation and Impression Management

Article excerpt

Adolescents' sexuality in real life has been widely explored in past research on such subjects as sexual attitudes (Werner-Wilson, 1998), sexual orientation (Frankowski, 2004), homosexuality (Harrison, 2003), sexual knowledge (Fisher, 1986), sexual behavior (Cubbin, Santelli, Brindis, & Braveman, 2005; Gowen, Feldman, Diaz, & Yisrael, 2004; Rostosky, Wilcox, Wright, & Randall, 2004), and sex education (Somers & Gleason, 2001; Song, Pruitt, McNamara, & Colwell, 2000). However, human sexuality on the Internet is a growing area of research in the social sciences (Cooper, 1998; 2002). Researchers have only recently begun to gather empirical data concerning online sexuality activity (OSA). To date, empirical studies have focused on the variety of OSAs (Cooper, Scherer, Boies, & Gordon, 1999), their categorization (Cooper & Griffin-Shelley, 2002), and online sexual problems (Cooper, Delmonico, & Burg, 2000; Cooper, Griffin-Shelley, Delmonico, & Mathy, 1999; Schneider, 2000). Only a few studies were addressed on the subject of adolescents' cybersex (e.g., Lo & Wei, 2005; Cameron, Salazar, Bernhardt, & Burgress-Whitman, 2005). How adolescents self-disclosure sexual information about themselves in cyberspace in largely unknown. The present study explored gender differences in adolescents' sexual self-disclosure on the Internet, the effect of anonymity on their willingness to self-disclose, and how they respond to others' sexual self-disclosure.

Deindividuation Effect and Sexual Self-Disclosure in Cyberspace

Previous perspectives proposed that self-disclosure and intimacy of relationship are synonymous, and that self-disclosure can function as an indicator of intimacy in interpersonal relations (Jourard, 1971). According to the social penetration model (Altman & Taylor, 1973), individuals will be more likely to self-disclose sexual information to intimate partners in real life. However, personal identification on the Internet is highly anonymous (Wallace, 2001) and can produce a deindividuated state which may bring about further disinhibition of one's antinormative behavior (Postmes & Spears, 1998). Therefore, sexual self-disclosure on the Internet may not depend on the intimacy of relationship as it does in real life.

Festinger, Pepitone, and Newcomb (1952) described deindividuation as a psychological state in which inner restraints are lost when "individuals are not seen or paid attention to as individuals" (p. 283). Anonymity, in particular, has been identified as one of the key causes of deindividuation (Zimbardo, 1969). A significant number of studies have demonstrated that deindividuation is likely to motivate individuals to behave in antinormative ways (e.g., Ellison, Govern, Petri, & Figler, 1995; Rehm, Steinleitner, & Lilli, 1987; Zimbardo, 1975).

As to Internet sexuality, for example, Lin and Yeh (1999) pointed out that the anonymity of the Internet ensured users' privacy. They found that, when having cyber sex, the anonymous users could feel free to confide their private thoughts to interactive partners. Wallace (2001) also believed that since the users are anonymous, they would be free of others' evaluation and criticism and thus do things they would not otherwise do. Therefore, it was predicted that adolescents would be more willing to self-disclose sexual information when their identities on the Internet are anonymous.

Gender and Sexual Self-Disclosure in Cyberspace

With regard to self-disclosure in real life, the consistent findings of previous research has been that females are more willing than males to provide profound self-disclosure to others (Caldwell & Peplau, 1982; Dindia & Allen, 1992; Reisman, 1990). Females believe that they reveal more about themselves and are more likely to be the recipients of others' self-disclosure (Buhrke & Fuqua, 1987; Snell, Miller, & Belk, 1988). In fact, females disclose themselves not only more frequently than do males, but are more willing to disclose intimate details than are males (Davidson & Duberman, 1982). …