According to recently published research, yes.
Online support groups, available for more than two decades now, are an invaluable lifeline for millions of Internet users. They cover virtually any topic imaginable, ranging from health concerns like cancer and M.S., to mental health concerns such as depression and ADHD. (At Psych Central, we host over 140 such support groups in our Psych Central and NeuroTalk communities.)
People typically find two things on such support groups — information and emotional support. The information is unique, because it’s not something you’ll find on a dry, static medical article. And it’s surprisingly accurate, because misinformation is quickly corrected by other community members before it’s allowed to propagate. Emotional support is an important and oft-overlooked ingredient in our health and well-being, especially when facing a life-threatening illness. It helps us feel like we’re not alone in coping with our concerns and gives us a sense of direction and empowerment.
But communities can roughly be divided into two groups of people — those who contribute and post something to the community, and those who don’t. Most online groups have a far larger percentage of people who do not post (or post just a handful of times). These people are known as “lurkers” in online parlance (because, ostensibly, they “lurk” in the background of the community). It’s long been suspected that people benefit from simply lurking and reading a community’s posts, but little research has been done to confirm this hypothesis.
Enter some curious Dutch researchers (van Uden-Kraan et al., 2008) who wanted to see if lurking confers the same types of benefits to a community member as active contributions and posting do.
They asked for volunteers from 19 Dutch online breast cancer support groups to fill out a survey and received back 528 completed surveys.
The researchers compared the results of 109 (21%) of the respondents who self-identified as “lurkers” with those who did not. Their findings?
Our study revealed that, with the exception of the empowering outcome “enhanced social well-being,” participation in an online support group had the same profound effect on lurkers’ feelings of being empowered in several areas as it had on posters. Apparently, the mere reading of postings from others in online support groups can be beneficial for patients. Therefore, lurking in online support groups might be seen as a form of bibliotherapy. The idea of bibliotherapy is that well-being can be improved by reading self-help books or stories in which people can identify themselves with others. Other studies have found evidence for online bibliotherapy; it has been shown to be effective in reducing depression, increasing self-management ability, and treating panic disorders.
Not surprising, they found that lurkers did not feel more empowered for enhanced social well-being. It would seem difficult to enhance one’s social well-being without being, well, social.
There are a few limitations of the current study (aren’t there always?). The researchers unfortunately could not provide the total number of members of the groups under study, so we don’t know whether this was a representative or sufficient sample. Also, as the researchers note, the percentage of lurkers who responded was significantly less than the commonly accepted percentage of lurkers in most online health communities (ranging from 46 to 59%). It would be difficult to get a more representative sample without building in some type of incentives or requirements for filling out the survey, since, by their very definition, lurkers are less likely to directly participate in a community. How this might affect the results, no one can really say.
All in all, a good initial study on this group of folks who make up such a large part of any online support group, confirming the long-held belief — people can benefit from online support without direct participation.
van Uden-Kraan, C., Drossaert, C., Taal, E., Seydel, E., & van de Laar, M. (2008). Self-Reported Differences in Empowerment Between Lurkers and Posters in Online Patient Support Groups. J Med Internet Res, 10(2):e18.