The Potential Benefits of Online Social Support

Research has confirmed the obvious: individuals are increasingly finding social support online in the form of mutual aid groups, Internet news groups, and electronic bulletin boards. Many of these self-help websites are becoming popular due in part to their free membership and accessibility.

Surprisingly, research suggests that these electronically-mediated support groups provide many, if not all, of the same benefits offered by face-to-face mental health groups, such as mutual problem solving, sharing of information, expressing feelings, mutual support, empathy, and catharsis. They also possess advantages that are distinct from face-to-face groups; online groups eliminate barriers of time and distance, and allow for worldwide participation, contributing richer information and perspectives to the group (2).

The ever-widening gap between the availability of qualified, affordable providers and the number of people seeking mental health services can be significantly reduced by these social support websites. Peer equality, online anonymity, two-way learning, accessible professional medicine, and the ability for individuals with rare disorders to find others struggling with a similar condition, are among the benefits and conveniences generated from online self-help groups (1).

Studies have found that online groups are not only beneficial for individuals suffering from mental distress, but they can also provide a means of support for the family members and friends as well. Perron (3) found that such online self-help groups are very beneficial for caregivers of individuals with mental illnesses. The study found that the groups allowed members to achieve catharsis, express support for other group members, and receive support from people with similar issues. The group also gave members the opportunity to immediately express themselves after an emotional event, a therapeutic benefit rarely available in face-to-face groups.

Another study, which examined online support groups for women who experienced postpartum depression, found that online support groups provided a means for emotional, informational, and instrumental support. It also found that the groups helped women develop a sense of competence, which led to elevated social engagement, self-determination, and personal empowerment.

The women also benefitted from the freedom of expression and access to empathic others provided by such online support groups (4). Similarly, Malik and Coulson (5) analyzed the characteristics and patterns of communication in an online infertility support group. They also found that the group served as a resource for informational guidance, mutual support, and empathy among people dealing with issues of fertility.

Overall, online groups have demonstrated their advantageous qualities. They serve as a resource for social support, providing empathy, encouragement, information, advice, hope, and a sense of community. Their online availability makes them more convenient and accessible, while the anonymity enhances a feeling of safety, reduces stigmatization and discrimination, and promotes self-disclosure, mutual support, and problem-solving (6).

Howard U

Howard University Doctoral Students

From Left to Right: Nomi-Kaie Bennett, Amy Rossmeisl, Karisma Turner, Billy D. Holcombe, Robin Young, Tiffany Brown, and Heather Key.  The authors are doctoral students at Howard University