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Facebook a forum for students to share touching (and troubling) secrets

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'I like sneaking books into people's bags so that the alarm goes off on them when they leave the library," reads one confession.

"I VW'd (voluntary withdrew) all my classes. My parents don't have a clue. I've been leaving the house during my said classes to go sleep in my car," says another.

"I prostituted myself last summer to be able to afford tuition fees. No one can tell by looking at me, but I feel dirty every time I go to school," yet another confessor writes.

Already the go-to place for boasting, ranting and oversharing online, Facebook is fast becoming a forum for young people to spill secrets and unburden themselves.

Alternately puerile, poignant and dubious -- one confessor claims to have graduated with a perfect 4.5 GPA after paying different people to write four years' worth of undergraduate exams -- anonymous admissions are popping up on "confessions pages" at educational institutions in Winnipeg and as far away as India. Even Princeton, Harvard and Yale have such pages.

UManitoba Confessions, which launched in mid-April, is up to more than 7,300 "likes." U Winnipeg Confessions, meanwhile, has just over 2,000 fans.

Both Facebook pages invite visitors to "Private message us your most heartfelt, disgusting, hilarious, filthy, and embarrassing confessions." (Neither of the administrators responded to our request for an interview.)

Students who create social media confessionals have to use their real names when doing so, as per Facebook policy, but they can conceal their identity as administrators.

To keep confessions anonymous, they apparently use online survey tools such as Google Forms. To tell all, posters need only click on a link and type in the message box. Their confession goes to the page administrator without any identifying information.

Visitors who "like" and/or comment on posts, however, must do so using their Facebook accounts and names.

Some commenters are touchingly supportive: "For whoever submitted this, you're loved," a young woman wrote, along with a heart symbol, beneath the prostitution confession. "I'd spend time with you," one fellow offered in response to a poster who wrote, "I have never felt so alone and unaccepted in my life."

Some posters seem to be just trolling for a reaction -- and they get it, like the above mentioned, alleged U of M grad with the perfect GPA who claims to have just been accepted into medical school, after having "never written a single final or midterm" in four years.

Although they use the name, and often feature photos of landmark buildings or use official logos, campus confession pages are not affiliated with the institution in question.

UManitoba Confessions and UManitoba Secret Admirers -- where posters can confess their campus crush -- "are not in any way officially sanctioned sites nor sites the University of Manitoba participates in," marketing and communications director John Danakas said in an email.

The U of M has a "robust" presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, he writes, which leaves it open to unintended social media conversations.

"There can be misinformation, gossip, bullying. Other times, some of the conversations are not meant for you," Danakas writes. "That's kind of where universities have landed with respect to sites like these (confessions sites)."

U of M student Riley McGuire, 22, who's completing his master's degree in English, says the popularity of the UManitoba Confessions page is "notable" given that it seems to have more "likes" than any other U of M page, apart from the main one (which has close to 15,000 likes).

It's "incredibly addictive," says McGuire, who attributes the confession page's popularity largely to the timing of its launch.

"It came out in mid-April, in the midst of final papers and exams, when students are looking for new and creative ways to procrastinate. The page was an amusing and relatable distraction."

Not that he's likely to be clearing his own conscience online anytime soon.

Not only does McGuire doubt the authenticity of many of the confessions, the promise of anonymity aspect is itself problematic.

"I have no idea who administers the page, or how much access they have to the identities of the authors of the confessions," he says. "This uncertainty would certainly deter me from submitting anything."

Campus confession pages may be "mostly just fun," as the headline of a recent Maclean's On Campus blog declares, but they have drawn criticism from educators who fear they'll lead to cyberbullying if the anonymity is breached. A public school board in Thunder Bay asked Facebook to take down the anonymous confession pages used by its high school students, according to a recent CBC News report. Students were reportedly posting tales of drinking and drug abuse and comments about teachers.

Police, concerned over the content on two high school confession pages in Kalispell, Mon., asked Facebook to shut them down, Reuters reported in March. Facebook closed one and removed offensive comments from another, according to the article, but the student instigators simply started a new page.

Facebook told Reuters that confessions pages do not violate its rules provided the content remains within the bounds of civility. A spokeswoman said the social media network routinely reviews pages on its site and responds to any complaints about content. If its reviewers deem a post objectionable, she added, Facebook will remove it or shut down the site entirely.

While much of their content is more observations, rants and smart-aleck remarks than heartfelt disclosure, the pages are likely providing some posters a catharsis of sorts, says Winnipeg psychologist Dr. Toby Rutner.

"It's a way to unburden yourself and share emotions and feelings, whether anybody reads these things or not," says Rutner. "Releasing something you feel strongly about can be a cathartic experience."

Provided the feedback is positive, the fact that other people can comment on the posts can be beneficial for posters who feel isolated and alone, or perhaps too vulnerable to share their innermost thoughts and feelings.

"This is a way for them to put it out there and solicit emotional support and maybe even feel understood," Rutner says.

No one has yet unburdened themselves on the Red River College Confessions page, which went up less than a week ago. Visitors are invited to "Have fun and write from your heart."

Administrator Vijay Bhamra, 18, also runs a confessions page for his high school back in his native India, where nearly every school has one, he says. He started the pages as a way to stay in touch with friends, but also wanted to help students who may not be brave enough to speak their truth.

"Confessions pages are mainly meant for people who are shy or who hesitate to say something directly to someone," he says. "When their identity isn't disclosed, they can say what they need to and confess easily."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2013 C1

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Updated on Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 6:57 AM CDT: changes headline, adds photo, adds fact box

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