By Ana Babić Rosario, Cristel Antonia Russell and Doreen Ellen Shanahan
Imagine finding yourself on a path to a new health and wellness goal. Something—a health scare, new life circumstances, doctor’s advice—has brought you to a place of desiring change. As if getting to this place wasn’t complex enough, you now might be feeling overwhelmed with information, confused, and unsure exactly where to take your first steps. What do you do next?
Well, millions of consumers turn to social media. On average, U.S. adults spend approximately 90 minutes a day on social networks, including over 30 minutes on Facebook. It is not surprising that earlier in 2021, Facebook revived their Groups campaign that was originally aired during Super Bowl LIV in 2020, promoting Groups as online places to “meet new people, share knowledge or get support.” Around that time, 1.8 billion users used a Facebook group every month, and tens of millions of active communities were available for people to connect to talk about their interests, to learn new things, and to be entertained. From parenting to health and wellness, the number of these virtual support communities keeps growing. And, most academic studies on these topics have documented the positive social dynamics of virtual support: communities provide informational and socio-emotional support that helps members achieve their goals.
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Yet, our recent research published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing concludes that within such online gatherings, connections are not always as constructive as Facebook hoped, even in virtual support communities built on the premise of communal accountability and accomplishment. We explored the social dynamics in these virtual communities through three methods: a netnography—a cultural approach to the study of social media—of a large (over 50,000 members) nutrition-focused Facebook group, a set of interviews to document members’ experiences of a virtual support community and its complex social dynamics, and a national survey of members of a large number of health- and wellness-related virtual support communities. The findings from these studies provide evidence of many paradoxical social dynamics of virtual support communities and document their outcomes in terms of how people feel about the community and how much they engage with or disengage from the community.
For one, we find evidence of both social empathy and social pressure. Social empathy is helpful: it ensures the group provides informational value that can assist the members in accomplishing their goals. But social pressure is two-sided: some pressure is helpful if it increases social empathy but pressure can become detrimental if it turns into angst. We’ve observed that these anxieties often cause members to disengage from the community.
We find evidence of both social empathy and social pressure. Social empathy is helpful: it ensures the group provides informational value that can assist the members in accomplishing their goals. But social pressure is two-sided: some pressure is helpful if it increases social empathy but pressure can become detrimental if it turns into angst.
Our study shows that virtual support communities are complex environments and that achieving one’s goals might need a healthy dose of pressure. Overall, while virtual communities can be very powerful and jump-start positive change among members, they can also incite insecurity and jeopardize mental health and the sense of belonging to a community. Because social pressure can have undesired effects, our study signals that these social networks may require traditional monitoring and moderation.Our findings are also in line with the October 2021 Facebook whistleblower testimony—appearing in front of the U.S. Senate, Frances Haugen tried to illuminate gray areas of social media, where online social interactions can jeopardize the mental health of individuals, groups, and communities. In this research, we are similarly identifying these gray areas, specifically in support communities on Facebook, where social media can be helpful but also damaging. As people’s reliance on online networks for social interaction continues to increase, it is important to continue to be aware of virtual support communities’ internal social dynamics and to understand their many paradoxes.
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Ana Babić Rosario, Cristel Antonia Russell, Doreen Ellen Shanahan (2022), Paradoxes of Social Support in Virtual Support Communities: A Mixed-Method Inquiry of the Social Dynamics in Health and Wellness Facebook Groups,” Journal of Interactive Marketing, First Published February 10, 2022. DOI: 10.1177/10949968221075819
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on SAGE Publishing’s Perspectives blog and is reprinted with permission.