Online Social Support: An Effective Means of Mediating Stress

By Cindy Dietrich
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/5 |

It is estimated that in North America, alone, there are currently 251 million people who use the internet (Miniwats Marketing Group, 2009).  Individuals utilize the internet for many reasons, including information, social connections, and entertainment (Shaw & Gant, 2002).  Although presently, there is a host of research on social support and the internet, the theme of online support groups as a method to social support and positive health outcomes is fairly innovative.  Kraut et al. (1998) published seminal research on the impact of the internet on social involvement and psychological well being (Shaw & Gant, 2002).

At the present time, there is a rich assortment of research on social support and the internet.  Research has established that social support and active coping effectively help to mediate stress.  Additionally, face-to-face support groups are positively correlated with desirable outcomes, such as improved health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, and lower blood sugar levels, resulting indirectly from adaptive coping skills and responses (Sullivan, 2003).  The implication is that developing social support networks may help people effectively manage stress and eliminate or alleviate the negative stress outcomes. The internet is one place where individuals may be able to develop large social networks through online support groups, in addition to social sites, such as Facebook.

There are a countless number of questions associated with the current and potential research.  Because of the nature of some research methodology and some topics, it may be difficult to ascertain verifiable answers to some research questions.  Nonetheless, it is important to research and evaluate the following questions in understanding the topic further:  To what extent is social support available online effective at mediating stress?  What groups of people are positively impacted by online social groups?  What negative outcomes may surface as a result of online support groups?  How do online support groups impact face to face social relationships?


In the literature, psychological wellness has been positively correlated with coping.  That is, as coping skills are improved, the level of wellness improves.  According to Folkman and Lazarus (1988), coping is a multifaceted construct.   Proactive coping, such as developing a social network, differs from reactive coping, which occurs in response to a stressor, rather than before the introduction of a stressor (Greenglass, 2002).  Proactive coping is important, because people may appraise a stressor as a surmountable challenge rather than a threat, if those people are adequately prepared to cope with the stressor (Greenglass, 2002).  While there is some debate concerning the efficacy of social support to buffer stress, it has been generally accepted that social support is a proactive coping strategy that helps to mediate stress (Greenglass, 2002; Semmer et al., 2008).

According to Semmer et al. (2008), social support includes two main types of support; instrumental and emotional support. Instrumental support is defined as helping behaviors that people do for another person, to help that person cope with a chronic or acute stressor, such as cleaning services, childcare, or cooking meals.  Conversely, emotional support is the reassurance or emotional support offered to reinforce sense of worth and feelings of self efficacy.  Both types of support are helpful for those who are faced with chronic and acute stress.  Semmer et al. explain that these two types of support are often intermingled, which has presented researchers with a challenge in trying to understand how these two constructs influence coping and wellness. Despite this challenge, Semmer et al. have demonstrated that both instrumental and emotional support is a valuable aspect of the coping process.

Summary of Main Points

The present paper will consider several aspects of online social design.  First, to offer the reader an understanding of the theoretical perspectives through which the work has been viewed.  Search strategies and operational definitions are included. Next, an exploration of online support groups is offered; including groups, listervs, and blogs related to health issues, supportive health roles, psychological issues, and other issues.  A cross comparison of groups and outcomes are also discussed.  Finally, the integration of the present research with Walden’s mission of social change is investigated and summary comments offered.

Theoretical Lens

To guide the present critical analysis of research on the present topic, three primary theories will be used to situate the present research; social support theory, online social support theory, and constructivism.  These theories will provide the reader with a lens through which to view the present work concerning online social support groups (Creswell, 2003).

Social Support Theory

Social support theory will provide a framework for understanding the experiences of those who use online support.  According to social support theory, social support is defined as informal support; including instrumental, cognitive, emotional, or appraisal support (Roehrle & Strouse, 2008).  Active coping strategies are things done to actively deal with or thwart stressors, such as finding alternative solutions to a situation, positive reframing, and seeking social support (Roehrle & Strouse, 2008).  According to this theory, the social support system is comprised of family, friends, co-workers, and others who are socially connected with one another.  It is important to note that social support can help or hinder the coping process.

The hope is that social support systems offer the members of a group the feeling of belonging, security, and a greater sense of self worth (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2008).  Further, social support has been shown to help mediate stress and conflict or minimal social support contributes to stress (Marra et al., 2009).  It has been established that support groups provide members with improved recovery and adaptive coping responses.  Overall, traditional support groups help cancer patients return to some level of normalcy (Sullivan, 2003).

Online Social Support

Online Social Support (OSS) theory was designed to understand the bigger picture of social support to include the use of the internet (LaCoursiete, 2001).  According to the OSS theory, a change or a perceived change in health status will lead to acute and chronic stress.  The stress is mediated through several factors, including health factors, perceived individual factors, demographic factors, and internet use factors.  These factors then lead to support seeking behaviors, which includes using online social support, comprised of three factors; structural aspects of the social network, functional assistance available or actually received, and the nature of the support (LaCoursiete, 2001).

In keeping with the theory, from online social support, emerge quantitative and qualitative outcomes.  Quantitative outcomes include behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and actions that are embedded in the formation of a social network (LaCoursiete, 2001).  The qualitative outcomes are linked with awareness, interactions with nurses and other care providers, and also contribute to social network formation.  According to the OSS model, because online social support is dynamic, as a person needs more or less support and has more or less support available, the online social support system will accommodate those changing needs. So, an acute stressor will be met with increased social support.

According to LaCoursiete (2001), the psychological perspective is centered on awareness.  The members of the social network disclose the information in accordance with four major patterns.  First, some members of a social support group are open and fully disclose information.  There is also closed disclosure, where the members, themselves, do not disclose information to the others in the group.  Additionally, there is hidden disclosure, where an individual is aware, but does not disclose to the other members (LaCoursiete, 2001).  Finally, there is blind disclosure, where the group knows but the individual does not.  In sum, the OSS theory is helpful in guiding research and the development of new understanding of online social support.

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