Online Social Support: An Effective Means of Mediating Stress

By Cindy Dietrich
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 4/5 |


Stress is an ever present aspect of life.  A woman diagnosed with breast cancer may experience a host of emotions and changes with the diagnosis and treatment, such as depression, anxiety, fear, and weight loss or surgery.  As a result, developing a rich collection of coping mechanisms is essential.  Online social support is one resource millions of individuals rely on in dealing with chronic and/or acute stress.  Several important questions are important to understand, such as, what conclusions can be drawn concerning the outcomes in people who use online social support?  How effective are online social support groups in mediating stress?  What groups are more positively or negatively influenced by online social support groups?  What dark side may exist in online social support groups?

Positive Outcomes

There are a host of positive outcomes for people who use online social support networks and communities.  Overall, many people report feeling less alone, better life satisfaction, and the feeling that people are there to help, as a result of social support offered from family, friends, and other members of their social network (Wright, 2000).  While there is some concern about self reported information, the perceptions of those using online social support is important to their own wellness (Creswell, 2003).  That is, when users believe the blogs, listservs or chat rooms are helpful and provide social support, they may feel more satisfied with their lives; perhaps even in the face of other indicators that may contradict their impressions or self report.

One indication of the impact of online social support is the amount of time individuals spend writing and working online.  Wright (2000) found the amount of satisfaction is predictive of online communication time.  As the amount of satisfaction increases, the amount of online communication time increases.  The exact direction of this relationship is not completely clear.  Wright posited that either people who are satisfied spend more time communicating, or those who participate more become more satisfied.  Further research on this relationship is needed to understand the precise nature of the relationship.  Wright’s research also indicated that the amount of satisfaction is negatively correlated with perceived stress.  That is, as satisfaction increases, the level of perceived stress decreases.

Within specific populations, online social support resources are thought to be helpful for those who use them.  Lieberman and Goldstein (2005) presented research that explored the use of online support mechanisms, such as bulletin boards that host asynchronous, threaded discussions in an effort to get a better understanding of the effects of online support services for breast cancer patients.  When people participate in asynchronous discussions, the psychosocial quality of life is improved.  According to Lieberman and Goldstein, those who did reported less depression, and improved emotional well being.  Members who left because the bulletin board did not support their needs experienced more depression when they left (Lieberman & Goldstein, 2005).

One very interesting group of online support group users is “lurkers”.  Support group “lurkers” are people who read the information, without commenting (Lieberman & Goldstein, 2005).  Lurkers may benefit from reading posts for some time before becoming actively involved in the experience.  Overall, Lieberman and Goldstein concluded that bulletin boards serve a great use for people coping with breast cancer with the potential to help others as well, including care providers and lurkers.

Parents and other caretakers comprise a large group of people who experience chronic and acute stress.  There is a lot of research on the benefits of social support with very positive outcomes for caretakers (Blum, 2004).  People caring for sick or disabled loved ones often experience social isolation and e-mail, threaded discussions offered parents a social outlet (Baum, 2004; Huws, Jones, Ingledew, 2001).  The online social support groups offer caretakers, who may not otherwise have the opportunity to socialize with others; the opportunity to interact with others who are experiencing the same things or something similar.  Further, social support or the availability of support is helpful in offering parents a sense of control over their situation, in addition to a feeling of connectedness (Huws et al., 2001).  That is important as it may help those parents cope with stress more effectively. Social support offers parents more confidence and lower depressive symptoms and less anxiety (Baum, 2004).

 Baum (2004) researched the efficacy of internet support groups as a means to mediate stress experienced by parents of children with chronic and life threatening illness.  Baum’s findings suggested that parents believe internet support increases their ability to cope with the stressors experienced.  Therefore, having social support available online is important for the wellness of parents and caretakers who experience and must cope with significant life stress, such as a sick child presents (Baum, 2004).

Huws et al. (2001) drew several important conclusions based on their qualitative study concerning the social support of caretakers.  Caretakers may be able to generate new understandings about their area of concern.  Through the emails, some people may have an improved understanding of the disorder and treatments thereof, enabling them to find support and adjust to changes.  Huws et al. noted that some researchers have argued that online support may negatively interfere with familial and friend relationship, which then may lead to more isolation and depressive symptoms.  The implication is that email groups, in addition to other options, such as face to face groups may be a valuable compliment, but email groups should not replace the other communication outlets.  One important thing caretakers should keep in mind is that while online social support groups can offer emotional support and information, there may be times where other types of social support is necessary, such as transportation or grocery shopping. 

Negative Outcomes

In addition to positive outcomes associated with online support groups, there have been some negative aspects of online social support uncovered.  Mulveen and Hepworth (2006) discovered the sinister aspect of online support groups.  They conducted a phenomenological study that examined pro-anorexia internet sites, designed and operated to support the development of anorexia (“ana”) in individuals, by evaluating threaded, asynchronous discussions. Four themes emerged; (a) tips and techniques, (b) “ana” versus anorexia, (c) social support, and (d) the need for anorexia.  The anorexic participants of the site found emotional support and a feeling that they can be themselves through their discussions on the pro-anorexia site.  Members wrote supportive messages, encouraging their anorexic peers to set and meet weight loss goals.

According to the site management, the site offers the members a place where they can anonymously be themselves; the experience offered them acceptance, rather than stigma they may experience in the real world.  The Mulveen and Hepworth (2006) study offered the reader a descriptive understanding of what those who use pro-anorexia sites gain from their participation in threaded discussions.  While the phenomenological approach does not support generalized applicability, it paints a detailed picture of the support people may experience from participation in an online support group (Creswell, 2003).

The internet revolution has impacted all aspects of life as we know it.  There is no doubt that the internet has enriched our lives.  However, there is some concern that the internet comes with evils as well (Kraut et al., 1998).  In addition to concerns regarding sites that promote anorexia and other psychological or health problems, there is some concern among researchers, regarding the internet as a means of social support.

Another concern shared by some researchers is that the time spent online may actually be promoting more social isolation.  Whereas some researchers believe the internet offers social support to cancer patients and caretakers, others, in particular Kraut et al. (1998), argue the internet has actually isolated individuals, lead to less communication among family members, and reduced the size and scope of social circles, all of which has lead to a greater sense of loneliness and social despair.  Despite research on the topic, at this point, the current research is mixed and there is no clear answer.

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