Computer-mediated Social Support
The prevalence of the Internet has reached the point that it has become indispensable in our daily lives. There are now over four billion people using the Internet worldwide, a penetration rate of over half of the world’s total population (Miniwats Marketing Group, 2019). This web of connectivity, between persons and across communities, presents great potential for people to relate with, and support one another.
Many computer chat programs, such as online forums, chat rooms and instant messaging, have emerged to constitute a diverse online social network. In this ‘place’, people talk with one another real-time and without geographical limitations. This type of computer-generated online instant communication, which is also known as computer-mediated communication, serves the purpose of interpersonal gratification (such as relaxation, esteem and recognition, solidarity forging) and fulfils social needs for bonding, maintaining/nurturing relationship and affection showing (Leung, 2007). Therein lies the social enabling power of computer-mediated communication beyond providing entertainment and information. It is not surprising that with such communication technology shaping the lives of people, it is also altering the way they access information and social support.
Tapping On the Cyberspace for Social Support
The potential of computer-mediated communication as a useful source of social support has been identified by many researchers (e.g. Tichon & Shapiro, 2004). Some researchers have found that the types of social support that exist in the physical world also exist online, including informational, emotional, instrumental and network support (Eastin & LaRose, 2004). Furthermore, online social support can be just as effective as traditional face-to-face support, and online support can be an important alternative to individuals seeking social support (Turner, Grube, & Meyers, 2001). The online social support theory introduced by LaCoursiete (2001) has specifically elucidated the role of the Internet in social support provision. According to this theory, the two triggers (initiating events) which prompt an individual to seek online social support are a change in health status and a change in perceived health, as these changes may lead to acute and/or chronic stress. These two events are then subject to the influence of mediating factors which comprise of four categories: health factors (e.g. health status and quality of life), demographic factors (e.g. age and socioeconomic status), perceived individual factors (e.g. psychological stress and coping ability), and Internet use factors (e.g. history and pattern of Internet use). In other words, these four categories help explain and can influence to a large extent why an individual seeks out social support. As a result, turning to online social support could be one way an individual seeks out social support. Studies have shown measurable stress reduction and other improvements in quantitative outcomes related to psychosocial processing ability, as a result of the online social support. Which is to say online support, if used appropriately, can be an effective intervention for psychological stress reduction and by extension, the prevention of acute and/or chronic stress.
Advantages of Online Social Support
While many recognise the strengths of online communication, Bambina (2007) and Robinson and Turner (2003) go even further to argue that computer-mediated social support surpasses traditional face-to-face social support in effectiveness under certain conditions. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, individuals can readily maintain and extend their access to social networks without being constrained by time, space and appearance (Franzen, 2000). They can access online social support at their convenience at any given time when the needs arise. This is especially important when one is too ill to travel, for example. Secondly, the option to remain anonymous allows seekers of online social support to present and express themselves more confidently and willingly
(Wright, 2000). Moreover, this online environment also provides a weak-tie relationship whereby the seekers are less likely to be apprehensive and pressured in the discussion of sensitive information, given the anonymity and objectivity of the process of rendering online social support (Colvin, Chenoweth, Bold, & Harding, 2004). Thirdly, online social support is always dynamic and available, and this is becoming a reality for more and more people. As computing technology progresses by the day, affordability (of gadgets) and connectivity improve while reach expands, enabling more to seek help on the Internet just as the online social support theory, which we mention earlier, has predicted.
Who Can Benefit from Online Social Support?
The importance of online social support cannot be emphasized more. Research has shown that children and adolescents experience a reduction in stress levels when they receive online social support, whether explicitly or implicitly. Received online social support is explicit when individuals seek out the support specifically for a problem for which they want support in and experience a reduction of stress. On the other hand, received online social support is implicit when individuals experience a reduction even though they may not be actively seeking for support. Young people tend to be tech savvy and like to spend time online, and tapping into online social support to build new networks (for those lacking in support) or to maintain existing social support would be the natural path to take.
Online social support can fulfil the needs of those who find receiving the tradition form of support difficult. These include people with health conditions, mental or physical, and people who are too ashamed and embarrassed to openly talk about their difficulties. It also brings support to homes in remote areas which do not have direct access to traditional support services. As regards the elderly who are physically unwell people or have limited mobility, and other disadvantaged groups such as bedridden individuals, the Internet may be the only form of communication. If computer training is conducted for older people with disabilities for example, then they are more likely to avail themselves to a practical and effective channel to maintain their well-being.
In summary, the benefits of online social support are wide ranging when used intentionally and appropriately. When used inappropriately or even maliciously, the Internet can become a distress and threatening platform for those who are vulnerable in the first place when they seek out support. For example, victims may unknowingly fall prey to cyberbullying and private information may be leaked online. It is therefore important to be cognizant of the benefits of online social support, yet at the same time, be more aware of the potential dangers of online activities. It is also good to keep in mind that online social support is best used to augment, or complement face-to-face interaction, not to replace it entirely. As in all tools and techniques, it is a double-edged sword capable of helping or hurting. It is thus important for us to be aware of the limitations and risks of online social support.
Bambina A. (2007). Online social support: The interplay of social networks and computermediated communication. NY: Cambria Press.
Colvin, J., Chenoweth, L., Bold. M., & Harding, C. (2004). Caregivers of older adults: Advantages of internet-based social support. Family Relations, 53, 49-57.
Eastin, M. S., & LaRose, R. (2005). Alt. support: Modeling social support online. Computers in Human Behavior, 21, 977-992.
Franzen, A. (2000). Does the Internet make us lonely? European Sociological Review, 16, 427-438.
LaCoursiere, S. P. (2001). A theory of online social support. Advances in Nursing Science, 24, 60-77.
Leung, L. (2007). Stressful life events, motives for internet use, and social support among digital kids. CyberPsychology and Health, 10, 204-214.
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Tichon, J. G., & Shapiro, M. (2003). The process of sharing social support in cyberspace. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 161-170.
Turner, J. W., Grube, J. A., & Meyers, J. (2001). Developing an optimal match within online communities: An exploration of CMC support communities and traditional support. Journal of Communication, 51, 231-251.
Wright, K. B. (2000). Social support satisfaction, on-line communication apprehension, and perceived life stress within computer-mediated support groups. Communication Research Reports, 17, 139-147.