Online Social Support: An Effective Means of Mediating Stress

By Cindy Dietrich
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 3/5 |

Psychological Issues

Online support groups are also useful for individuals coping with psychological issues, interested in things, such as suicide, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and bereavement.  Some people experiencing particular psychological problems rely on 12 step programs that offer social support in a more organized fashion, for example Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).  These programs have traditionally been face to face, but with the internet being so readily available, there has been recent interest in evaluating the efficacy of an internet form of self help groups like AA or NA.

Specifically, social support for bereaved individuals is one area for which there has been a significant amount of research (Bath, 2009; Vanerwerker & Prigerson, 2003).  Bereaved individuals are at a higher risk for mental and health problems, such as depression or anxiety disorder (Vanderwerker & Prigerson, 2003).  Social support has been shown to be extremely helpful for people who have lost a loved one, and electronic connectedness offers individuals the ability to feel supported without actually having to be in the same place as those members of the social network.

Other Issues

Social relationships are like a double edged sword; sometimes, social relationships are positive and help to mediate stress, while other times social relationships may be pathogenic and cause stress.  Social stress is present in nearly all social relationships and in all contexts. Because of the social nature of human relationships, social stress is evident in marriages, peer groups, and work environments.  While social stress may not be immediate or acute; the typically chronic nature of social stress is nonetheless harmful (Lazarus & Folkman, 1988).

According to the cognitive transactional model, people with a weak network of support and few coping techniques may feel stressed with small, less significant hassles; those with a more advance support system and a greater number of tricks in their bag may experience less feelings of stress with the same level, or more stressors (Baum, 2004).  The implication is that individuals may reduce their stress level by developing support systems and utilizing coping skills in handling stress.  As a result, individuals with social stress may take advantage of support groups, including those conducted online.

Use of Online Social Support

Across several different populations of users, there may be some differences between groups in how the online support groups provide support, or how the members participate. There may be important differences across gender, racial and ethnic lines, and age.

Gender Differences

There is no denying, men and women are different. And, the differences are manifested in a wide variety of ways.  There is some evidence that supports the idea that men and women use social relationships differently to cope with stress (Greenglass, 2002).  In line with traditional, face to face groups where women outnumber men 4:1, some research has indicated that more women use the internet for social support than men.  Seckin (2009) searched Google! to find “online discussion groups for cancer” and 31 active discussion groups were identified (p. 81).  Within those 31 online support groups, the researchers purposively sampled people over 18 years old with a history of cancer.  The sample revealed that approximately 75% of the participants were women.

In addition to number of people who rely on online social support, when accounting for gender, the specific nature of participant posts may differ between genders.  Sullivan (2003) examined the gender differences in online support groups. Sullivan found that in the ovarian group, the posts tended to provide emotional support through compliments, thankfulness, and positive messages of optimism and encouragement; the women tended to share personal experiences in their threads.

On the other hand, in the prostate group, the focus of men’s discussion threads was informational.  Participants posted technical information, specifically used to inform others.  Alternative treatment options were discussed, and the men seemed to adhere to a set of well established group norms; the discussions were informational and not personal in nature.  It is not yet clear why this difference exists. Dedovic et al. (2009) have posited that the gender differences in coping, utilizing social support, may be accounted for in some part because of the gender socialization process rather than some biological explanation.

Racial/Ethnic Differences

In addition to research that examined gender difference, other researchers have studied the racial and ethnic difference in online, social support and information seeking patterns (Fogel et al., 2003; Jiali, 2006).  The Fogel et al. inquiry sought to understand the racial and ethnic difference in online, information seeking patterns.  Their findings indicated that African Americans and Latino Americans felt formal support groups are helpful in that they provide motivation to continue treatments.  There was a positive effect of social support, in terms of belonging.  There was no impact on how those people felt about themselves or their lives, when the internet is used for information seeking, for the groups included in the study.

On the other hand, other researchers have found there is significant difference in the groups who rely on formal approaches to therapy, including support groups.  Jiali (2006) noted that individuals in some populations do not tend to use formalized psychological support, such as group or individual therapy, due to a fundamental difference in life experiences with regard to formal treatments. Jiali concluded that because Asians, Blacks, and Latino/Latina individuals relied on social support after acutely stressful experiences, such as the terrorist attack on September 11th, it is essential to ensure those individuals are offered social support in a variety of avenues, including social support groups, both face to face and online.  Further, it is important that informal support mechanisms are available (Jiali, 2006); online social support groups may be one valuable option.

Age

Hundred of millions of people spend time working and playing on the internet, from young children to senior citizens (Leung, 2007; Shaw & Gant, 2002).  Given that stress impacts people of all ages, and with the widespread use of the internet, understanding online social support for people of all ages is important.  As the present paper has suggested, there are a number of studies that examine online social support across all populations, including adolescents, adults, and the elderly (Leung, 2007; Greenglass, Fiksenbaum, & Eaton, 2006).

By and large, children and teens experience chronic and acute stress in their lives.  Stressors include familial relationships, peer pressure, and academic pressures (Leung, 2007).  The internet offers children and adolescents a source of entertainment, relaxation, information, social identity and the ability to develop and maintain social relationships.  Additionally, there are some children and teens, who use the internet to help alleviate stress and depression through support groups (Leung, 2007).

Despite some barriers seniors face in using the internet, including vision challenges and inexperience, in 2004, roughly 4 million senior citizens were using the internet (Carnegie Mellon Cylab, 2009).   The users are most often wealthy, well educated, married men (Hardt & Hollis-Sawyer, 2007).  An important barrier to consider in understand the trends of internet use among older individuals is the cost; many retired people are not able to afford the expenses associated with being online.

One unique aspect of online support groups is the very open and expansive nature (Cummings, Sproull, & Kiesler, 2003).  People from all over with common experiences and interests can share their experiences, problems, or solutions with others.  This is significant for some who feel alone, or stigmatized, with no or limited social support. In addition, it is particularly noteworthy with older adults, who may feel alone in their life’s journey, which may be aggravated by the nature of the lifecycle, where as older adults grow older, their social circle shrinks (Gow et al., 2007).

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