News stories on social media often focus on the negative aspects of technology: cyberbullying, scams, and how social media contributes to loneliness, depression, and anxiety. But this same technology offers people opportunities to connect with others who share their lived experiences, which can have positive effects on their mental and physical well-being.

Several years ago, I found myself struggling with depression, which I’ve written about in more detail elsewhere. Part of what made that experience so difficult for me was how isolated I was at the time. I was living thousands of miles away from my closest friends and family. I was a single mother. And while social media offered me an opportunity to connect with people, most of what I was struggling with were things I couldn’t talk about publicly on social media out of fear of repercussions. And even if I could, most of these issues felt so specific that my friends and family couldn’t relate anyways. Had I been left alone to ruminate, I think my depression would have continued to progress, perhaps with really serious consequences. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone

A couple years before this depressive episode, I’d found an online group made up of single  mothers working in academia. These were my people. They understood the challenges I faced, not just as someone navigating divorce and single parenthood, but the unique challenges of doing so while working in our specific profession. These shared lived experiences allowed us to connect to each other in a way that promoted deep intimacy, despite the fact that many of us had never (and still have never) met in person. When I had questions about parenting, or about how to cope with co-parenting woes - I went to this community. When I had questions about my tenure battle, or how to move forward after I was denied tenure - I went to this community. It became the one space where I could be vulnerable, transparent, and get the in-the-moment support I needed.

Finding community in a digital age

Experiences like mine aren’t unique, or new. Research on online relationship development dates back to the early nineties. Back then, some researchers were arguing that online relationships could actually be more intimate than offline relationships. Even my own undergraduate advisor published a paper back in 1998 showing the benefits of an online community on parenting stress and social isolation among single, pregnant mothers. 

Part of what drew people to the Internet initially wasn’t to connect with people they already knew, but to connect with other, like-minded strangers. Although we’ve moved away from the anonymous chat rooms of the nineties, these online communities have persisted, finding homes on Reddit, Twitter, and even in Facebook groups. But a recent Forbes article suggests that the future may not be in these large social media sites, but in niche sites focusing on specific interests.

A ‘safe’ place to share and find answers

Much like me, many people prefer to lean on virtual communities for support due to concerns about sharing particular struggles with friends and family. One study of college students found that those struggling with their mental health may be more likely to turn to social media and online peer communities than to their parents or mental health professionals for support. Another study of members of an online community for mental wellbeing found that nearly half of users reported sharing something in this community they hadn’t shared anywhere else.Mockup-1

In some cases, people prefer to turn to these communities because of concerns about over-burdening their real-world support system. For example, in one study, people who engaged with an online peer community for depression reported that this community offered them a safe place to practice skills and exchange information. As one user explained: “It’s different from friends of mine who also suffered from depression and are the most approachable people in my network, where I sometimes think, “I don’t want to bother them with my complaints again.” This is much more anonymous.”  Similarly, people with chronic illness have expressed how these spaces offer them a place to talk about their illness without worrying about boring or worrying people in their offline networks. 

In other cases, as in mine, people are looking specifically for others with similar lived experiences to engage in reciprocal support. Indeed, for people with newly diagnosed chronic illness, being able to share their experiences online with people with the same illness helps facilitate the identity work that comes with coping with their diagnosis. And the opportunity to learn from others with the same condition can help people manage their condition and increase their health literacy - helping patients feel more confident in conversations with their healthcare providers.

Mental health benefits

Although we still need more research on the benefits of online peer communities, preliminary research suggests that they can have a positive impact on members’ mental health.

A common thread across studies is that members of online peer communities feel more empowered. Some of this stems from access to information that helps members feel like they can overcome difficult circumstances, but responding to others has also been shown to be particularly important to feeling empowered. So the benefits of online peer communities isn’t just about the advice you get, but about the act of offering support to others.

Other research suggests that members of online peer communities report a greater sense of belonging and reduced anxiety and stress

In my case, I eventually left this particular group as dynamics shifted, but I can say with absolute certainty that a big part of why I was able to navigate the difficulties in my life at the time and wind up where I am now is because of the people in this community - many of whom I still have close relationships with today.

care-iconTwill offers online communities through our Twill Care app - a moderated community platform where people can find connection and support, interact with healthcare professionals, share their experiences with others, and get personalized insights within a safe, moderated environment. Each community focuses on a specific condition or lived experience, so members can find support from healthcare professionals and peers who understand what they are going through. Twill Care currently offers communities focused on well-being, pregnancy, MS, psoriasis, and women and midlife. Twill Care is free to use, and can be combined with other Twill products in one of our SequencesTM.

Want to get started? Join one of our communities in Twill Care today.