There have been a number of studies that have examined online self-help support groups and found them to be of varying quality. Some studies find the amount of help they provide participants varies, which may be related to the actual quality of the group itself or the specific needs of the disease or disorder being studied. This guide is an effort to provide specific quality indicators to look for when looking for an online support group to join for a health or mental health issue.
How do you determine whether a particular online group meets these indicators? Usually you can only find out by reading the messages published by the group (whether it's by email or on a message board or chat room). This may take a few days to get a true feel for what the group is like and whether you would like to become a member of the group. (Since most online groups are free to join, this costs you nothing other than a little time.) Remember, you don't have to join the first online support group you find! Take your time to evaluate groups and ensure you find one that meets your particular needs. If you're having difficulty finding an online support group, please check out research directory and our article about how to start your own.
Caring and Compassionate
Just as empathy is an important characteristic to look for in a therapist, caring and compassion are important traits to look for in an online support group. Research has found that in groups where members expressed genuine concern and compassion in a nonjudgmental environment for one another, the group received higher ratings for helping people feel better about themselves and their mental health or health concern. Look for groups where members offer their support and opinions in a nonjudgmental manner, without bias or preconceptions. While disagreements in a group are unavoidable, positive online support groups disagree in a mature, respectful manner more often than not.
Avoid groups where personalities seem always to be clashing, members don't get along with one another, there's a high level of sarcasm, or where group members use the forum as a chance to complain or engage in an ongoing "pity party." No community is going to be free of all these negatives all of the time. But ones where the negatives clearly seem to be the norm rather than the exception should be avoided.
Active and Vibrant
The best online support groups are those where the members are actively posting messages to the group on a daily basis and where forum leaders take an active role in helping the community thrive. You'll recognize such a group not only by its high daily activity and membership roster, but also by the positive participation of its leaders or moderators. Such folks welcome new members to the community and try to make them feel at home. New member questions are answered respectfully and in a timely manner. Vibrant online support groups will often keep a list of "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) about the community's guidelines and norms, which were arrived at by group consensus.
Avoid groups where there seems to be little activity in the group on a regular basis or where there are too few members. Small online groups tend not to be as supportive as larger ones (but too large a group can also be overwhelming). Look out for groups that tend to revolve around one group leader; these groups can sometimes be more about the leader's personality than offering a place for support. Good online communities help correct misinformation when it arises, too. Some smaller online groups will naturally have less activity or members than others, but no activity also means no support.
True Sense of Community
The best online support groups go from being just a group of strangers sharing their concerns and emotions with one another to a close-knit community of people who genuinely know and care about one another. Younger groups won't have this right away, because it takes time and members' emotional commitment to achieve this sense of community. But you can recognize it as an outsider as members ask about one another, check in with things going on in each other's lives, celebrate important occasions and achievements, and share all sense of emotions (both good and bad). Positive online support groups don't revolve around purchasing a product or service either, they revolve around the accomplishments and failures of their members.
In good online support groups, members stick around long after they've received the support they were seeking. They stay because they want to give others what they themselves found in the group. Psychologists call this "high group cohesion," and it is the pinnacle of group achievement.
Avoid groups where members seem to come and go with every passing week, and nobody asks or cares much about one another's lives. Groups that are punitive to members that break the rules often suffer from little sense of community. Look out for groups that seem to encourage "hit and run" posting - where members pour out their miseries and expect unconditional, never-ending support. When their concerns pass, however, they offer nothing in return to others. Don't bother joining an online group that requires a purchase of a product or service up-front, either, unless it is in support of a specific program that helps you (e.g., Weight Watchers).
Find What's Right for You
In the end, people are happier and feel they get more out of an online support group when that group is meeting one or more of their needs. Identify a few specific needs (such as, "I need to touch base with others at least once a week," "I need others to accept me for who I am," or "I need support to help me change these 3 things about my behavior") and look for a group that is most likely going to fulfill them. You'll find that groups that meet the above three criteria will, more often than not, meet your needs more readily than those who lack them.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jan 2007
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
The Difficult is that which can be done immediately; the Impossible that which takes a little longer.
~ George Santayana