online support groupsIn the age of the Internet, it is to be expected that nearly every facet of our lives would find expression in cyberspace, even drug abuse recovery. Both therapist-led group therapy and self-directed group recovery are cornerstones of the drug recovery process. For this reason, it is no surprise that online forums exist to bring recovering substance abusers together to discuss addiction-related experiences.

Online addiction support groups are available for a wide range of addictions. These online support groups are made up of networks of people who want to mutually support one another through particular addictions and issues related to substance abuse. In addition to substance addictions, online support groups exist for other addictions, such as:

  • Codependency
  • Gambling
  • Food
  • Video games
  • Sex

There are numerous ways to access online support groups, whether an interested person performs a general or targeted search based on the specific type of addiction. There are various platforms, and many support groups use Facebook to meet. For example, the Facebook Crystal Meth Addiction Support and Help Group has an open message stating that anyone can join whether their abuse is past or present.

In addition, some drug treatment programs dedicate a part of their official website to discussion groups. Similarly, some colleges and universities run a discussion forum for students on college-related issues like substance abuse and eating disorders. As an alternative to joining an existing discussion, an individual or group can start a new website, create a new Facebook group, or begin a new topic thread within an existing group.

Online, individuals can come together to share their experiences with addiction on different websites and through various vehicles of communication. Some of the main formats of online group communication are:

  • Discussion boards
  • Chat groups
  • Instant messaging
  • Mailing lists

According to researchers, the type of format engaged will impact the communications dynamic. Those interested in online support are best advised to try different formats, sites, and groups to have a varied experience or to settle into one or a few groups that are a good match.

The traffic on these sites varies considerably. Some forums will list their group membership count at the outset, even before a prospective member joins. However, it is important to keep in mind that the counter likely includes inactive members, which can represent the size of the group to be larger than it actually is. Like with any social group, there may be a quick initiation process; for example, new members may need to be approved by the group moderator. It is often possible to jump right in and dialogue with or leave messages for members, but in order to get a feel for the topics, members’ personalities, and the true membership count, a new member will likely need to engage the site at least a few times over a week or two-week period.

Pros of Online Support Groups

Research on the psychology of cyberspace explores how people potentially behave differently online compared to face-to-face interactions. At first look, an online addiction support group may seem like an entirely neutral enterprise, and it very well may be. However, no one can deny that easy access to online groups, anonymity, and a lack of an identity verification process make forums vulnerable to dishonesty. Like any online social interaction, a virtual support group may offer a sense of community, or it may make a new member vulnerable to untrustworthy individuals.

A review of research on online support groups published in Oxford Journals notes that there are several benefits to joining a virtual community, including:

  • Empowerment: The cooperative nature of this forum can build self-confidence and positive ownership of the problems in a person’s life.
  • Access: Users can log on 24/7 and set the pace of their response time in a way that does not happen in real time.
  • No barriers to entry: Geography, transportation, and costs are not limitations as they may be in physical meetings.
  • Invisibility:Those with a negative self-perception due to disabilities or feelings of social anxiety may feel more encouraged to interact with others online.

Although this review did not focus on online addiction groups, the points made are applicable to this community. The review only scratched the surface of some of the potential benefits online forums offer. In addition to the advantages described, online discussions of addiction can serve as education and prevention tools. Individuals who want a candid account of what it is like to suffer from a particular addiction need only peruse relevant threads and discussions on the topic.

The Internet also offers flexibility in a way that brick-and-mortar meetings simply cannot. For instance, the online community is international. Americans may benefit from joining online forums based in the UK and other English-speaking countries. Despite a difference in nationalities, there are elements of the addiction experience that cut across all cultures. A person in an international group can deepen their world perspective on issues related to addiction.

It will ultimately be up to the individual to weigh the pros and cons of participating in an online group. Depending on the experience one has, the pros may outweigh the cons, but it is difficult to make this determination without having direct interaction with an online group. The invisibility implicit in the process means that a person could feasibly log in to a group and observe it without communicating in order to get a sense of the tone and nature of the discussions.

Cons of Online Support Groups

cyberbulliesWhen considering the disadvantages of joining an online community, it is important to note that this form of communication may be particularly susceptible to misinterpretation. The goal of being online is to receive support and not to engage in interpersonal disputes of opinions. Users benefit most when they keep this goal in mind.

Further, cyberbullying is a well-known and dangerous phenomenon. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying (both offending and being victimized) relates to real-world problems including substance abuse. It is important to note that cyberbullying is often framed as a teen issue, but there are offenders and victims of all ages. Numerous cyberbullies trawl the Internet under a cloak of invisibility. Members of an online support group may have a cyberbully among them without being aware of his or her presence until the bully lashes out.

Cyberbullies usually do not limit their attacks to one or two incidents but are generally repeat offenders against the same person or group. In the unfortunate event that a cyberbully, online troll, or other person with malintent becomes hostile online, a healthy response to cyberbullying would be to contact the site host to report the activity and work to have the person removed.

Receiving misinformation is a potential drawback of online support groups. Professor of psychology John Suler, of Rider University in New Jersey, discusses human interactions in online support groups. He notes that these groups may perpetuate non-scientific facts about health conditions. Opinions should always be taken with a grain of salt and not relied on as a substitute for information supported by clinical trials and other evidence. A group may develop its own shared system of beliefs and rigid ideas about topics like addiction. The group, as Suler explains, develops its own discrete ideology. However, it is important to keep in mind that the optimal use of online groups entails learning from them and not developing a myopic view on complicated issues like addiction.

Another consideration is how joining an online group can impact the rest of the recovery process. Online groups may be more volatile in terms of membership than in-person meetings. There is a greater commitment to traveling to a face-to-face group than simply logging on to one. Due to the greater personal sacrifice involved in meeting in person, members may be more likely to protect their investment in the group. In the case of information gathering alone, as for loved ones of a substance abuser, online groups may be a good source of firsthand information about addiction. However, for a person who is in recovery, stability is key, and online groups may offer too many varied attitudes and personalities.

It is also important to point out that an online group member should always maintain his anonymity online and not disclose personal information, such as his address, name, social security number, or any financial-related information. Photos should generally not be exchanged as these images can then be used for other unintended purposes online and offline. General rules of exercising safety on the Internet apply with full force when interacting with an online support group.

Online Groups vs. 12-Step Meetings

There is a consensus in the addiction treatment community that online forums are not a substitute for face-to-face group recovery involvement, such as attendance at 12-step meetings like NA and AA. The benefit of online groups is difficult to study, and there is less professional research in this area than there is pertaining to the benefits of 12-step meetings, which have been occurring for over seven decades in the US. There is no precedent for online therapy as a substitute for counseling in general, as in one-on-one individual psychotherapy. It simply isn’t advised to undergo the brunt of therapy in cyberspace.

Twelve-step meetings are a core part of treatment curricula across the US. As two professors of psychiatry discuss for Boston’s NPR station news site Wbur’s Common Health, 12-step treatment programs are among the most effective rehab methodologies currently in use. Both psychiatrists credit 12-step programs as having a positive impact on helping substance abusers to change drug-related behaviors.

These doctors are not alone in their opinion. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), National Institute of Health (NIH), American Psychiatric Association (APA), and Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System (VAHCS) encourage recovering substance abusers to join 12-step recovery groups as part of their treatment. Countless drug treatment centers can also be added to this list of advocates.

Online groups, however, can serve as a useful adjunct to therapy, especially if a helpful community is found. For a recovering person who is following a well-structured maintenance or aftercare plan (including individual and group therapy), joining an online addiction support community can potentially be a healthy and wise use of one’s time. Recovering individuals seeking an online community can ask a drug counselor, AA or NA sponsor, or fellow AA or NA group members for a recommendation. It may even be possible, with a little creativity, to add an online component to an existing 12-step group.

A Safe Space

safe spaceAs with all communications, whether virtual or in person, the key for any mutual aid group is to create a safe and trusting space to engage members intelligently, thoughtfully, and honestly. While there are traditional approaches to addiction treatment, there are not hard and fast rules. Once a well-structured maintenance or aftercare program is in place, a recovering person can add supportive services to their treatment plan and make necessary modifications as experience dictates over time.

Additionally, the decision to join, remain in, or leave an online group need not be made alone. A psychotherapist or drug counselor can discuss the potential merits and drawbacks of online relationships during regularly scheduled sessions. During maintenance treatment and as part of aftercare, therapists can guide recovering persons through any issues or concerns they may have about life issues both offline and online. The online support group process can be low-risk and prove to be a helpful experience provided the recovering person stays focused on the goal of optimizing her well-being and living a drug-free life.

At Orlando Recovery Center, we provide our clients with expert rehab services and education on different types of support services available outside of our programs, such as online support groups. Our goal is to provide our clients with every available recovery tool they may find useful. While we play a critical role in your recovery process, you own the process, and we work to empower you with the information you need to make the best decisions in your day-to-day life.