Online Social Support: An Effective Means of Mediating Stress

By Cindy Dietrich
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 2/5 |


Constructivism will serve as a foundation for the proposed research and in writing the research report, as the theoretical basis will allow the reader and researcher the opportunity to develop a personally relevant understanding of the material.  The central idea of constructivism is that individuals learn new things and assimilate new knowledge into the framework of previous experiences (Kivinen & Ristela, 2003).  Learning is an active and conscious process where people learn and reflect to construct meaning (Kivinen & Ristela, 2003).  As a result, through writing the present paper, I have constructed an understanding of online support groups.  Additionally, the present work stands to offer the reader an opportunity to construct a personally relevant understanding of online social support groups, and online social support.

Operational Definitions

Operational definitions are important to clarify terms for the reader (Creswell, 2003).  The purpose of operational definitions is to offer the reader clarity of understanding, as he or she reads the paper.  The following definitions are included to help the reader clearly understand the terminology in the present paper:

Internet Support Groups: Groups that are self-help, rather than therapeutic in nature are support groups (Kernsmith & Kersmith, 2008).  Groups may be managed and moderated by one or more individuals, often people who share the experience, which is the purpose of the group.  For example, in a support group for parents of children with autism will most likely have a child with autism.  The groups are conducted through the use of the internet, and are often asynchronous (Kernsmith & Kernsmith, 2008).  That is, the discussions are threaded and posts are made at the convenience of the user, rather than at the convenience of the group.  Other terms include social networks or computer mediated support groups.

Blog: This is a shortened version of “web log” (, 2009).  Blogs are a personal journal or diary hosted online, kept in chronological order, and read by interested individuals (Baker & Moore, 2008).  Web logs are generally asynchronous, that is time delayed.  That is, when people write a post, at some point, it is posted for the community to read.  The posting process is not immediate, such as what happens in chat rooms.

Listservs:  Lists of email addresses are used to send out notices and messages to registered users.  Listservs may be used as the primary discussion tool, to supplement threaded discussions, or to make users aware of new posts to the discussion board.

Chat Rooms: Chat rooms are online discussions conducted over the internet in a synchronous manner.  Usually, chat rooms include groups of people who type messages, very similar to a face to face discussion.  Chat rooms are held with as few as two individuals or many more than that.  Chat rooms differ from instant messaging, in that instant messaging usually involves two people, who have the option of inviting more people, once the discussion begins.

Bulletin Boards: Internet resources that allow people to communicate asynchronously are referred to as Bulletin Boards, or BBs (Lieberman & Goldstein, 2005).  Like listservs, the discussions are not in real time; however, the posts may be made directly to the internet, rather than via email.  Users are asked to register and may receive updates through email.

What is Online Social Support?

Some research has examined various platforms of online social support, including bulletin boards, cell phones, and email. Lieberman and Goldstein (2005) presented research that explored the use of online support mechanisms, such as bulletin boards that host asynchronous, threaded discussions; they argued that individuals on the bulletin boards experience closer relationships that result from “hyperpersonal communication” (p.856).  Lieberman and Goldstein rationalized that when people put more time and thought into their communication, it may be more valuable than other forms of communication.  Interestingly, the online format also offers users a sense of anonymity, which may offer those individuals who engage in online support groups more freedom to share their potentially stigmatizing experiences, such as having a mental health problem (Mulveen & Hepworth, 2006).

To get a sense of online social support, it is valuable to define and understand what types of online support are available.  Issues at the heart of online support groups are wide and varied, and include various health issues, including but not limited to cancer, and some chronic health conditions; playing supportive roles in health care of loved ones and friends; psychological issues and social issues.

Health Issues

In 2006, over a 550 thousand people died from cancer and 72 thousand people died as a result of diabetes (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009).  Consequently, these types of statistics have moved researchers and medical support personnel to search for ways to help treat people living with chronic and acute medical conditions, and assist those individuals to cope effectively with their stressful experiences.  Several important studies have examined the use of social support for people with cancer, diabetes, and other health issues (Beaudoin, & Tao, 2007; Lieberman, & Goldstein, 2005; Sullivan, 2003).   Aside from cancer and diabetes, other health issues discussed in online forums include, but are not limited to, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g.,, colitis (e.g.,, AIDS (e.g.,, and infertility (e.g.,

Wellness is also a topic of interest in online support groups; for example, there are blogs, threaded discussions, and listservs dedicated to smoking cessation (e.g.,, breastfeeding (e.g.,, and eating issues (e.g., In sources of online support, the participants are offered emotional support, in addition to medical information, and potential treatment options (Sullivan, 2003).  These resources can be invaluable for the people who rely on them to help sustain a healthy lifestyle.

People in Supportive Roles

In addition to online support groups for people with health issues and interests, there are groups of individuals, such as parents and spouses, who serve as primary caretakers of people with serious health issues.  The individuals may be caring for a parent, child, friend, spouse or client with a chronic or acute condition.  The stress impact on parents, spouses, and other members of social networks, resulting from caring for a loved one or patient is significant (Schwerdtfeger et al., 2008).  In some cases, the stress can be so intense that the caretaker, themselves, may even experience health or psychological problems.  Therefore, developing effective and comprehensive coping strategies is important.

The stress of caring for a sick or disabled loved one may be magnified by the fact that caretakers are somewhat bound by place and time.  That is, often caretakers spend a tremendous amount of time at home and at the hospital, making them somewhat socially isolated.   Like those individuals who are experiencing a stressful condition, those who are providing social support and care for those individuals may implement many coping mechanisms to handle the stress and associated feelings, including making use of social support (Schwedtfeger et al., 2008).  As a result, caretakers may turn to online support groups to help cope with the stress.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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