Support groups are a very common feature of addiction treatment. As part of rehabilitation programs and for years after as post-care, support groups allow people to get advice, empathy, and other kinds of support from people who are going through the same thing. There are groups for all types of addiction, including those that don’t involve intoxicants, and for all types of people. Many addiction support groups use a 12-Step model or program or a secular version of it. Others are simply for sharing stories and offering any help they can to members.
For many years, people had to travel to a predetermined location in order to attend addiction support group meetings. Today, with the increasing availability of digital services, these groups can now meet online. Chat rooms and now even video chat conferences can be used to hold meetings. Others may utilize open message boards where members can go any time of the day to post questions, share stories and emotions, and give advice to one another. Facebook pages can be used in a similar manner.
Unfortunately, there is no denying that interacting with people online is different from interacting in person. Online support groups may not be for everyone, though they can be an incredible resource for those who find it difficult or impossible to attend in-person meetings. They can also be used to supplement in-person meeting attendance. There is a long list of pros and cons when it comes to online addiction support groups, and it’s important to consider both options before settling on one.
Pros of Online Support Groups
The most obvious advantage to online addiction support groups is accessibility. Though not everyone may have internet access at home, public libraries now come standard with computers that have online access. Even those who can’t afford computers, including homeless individuals, can get online once a week or more for an online group meeting.
This may actually be more affordable for some than having to take the bus or secure other transportation to regular in-person meetings. This is especially important due to the fact that so many homeless people suffer from substance use disorders. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one in five homeless individuals is suffering from a substance abuse problem.
Other advantages include:
- Physical accessibility: People with chronic illness or mobility issues can have significant trouble leaving the house on a regular basis to get to in-person meetings. Also, people who live in rural areas may be too far from the location of these meetings to make them reasonably accessible.
- Emotional accessibility: People with social anxiety, agoraphobia, and other anxiety disorders can feel much safer talking to people online under an anonymous username.
- Constant availability: Chat rooms and message boards remain open 24 hours per day, allowing members to ask questions and seek support at any time. If they are in crisis, they may be able to find advice and somebody who knows how to help them immediately instead of having to possibly wait days until the next meeting.
- Empowerment: Message boards and Facebook pages can allow people to work collaboratively, potentially for hours at a time, to solve problems. This cooperative helps to build relationships, self-esteem, and positive ownership of one’s issues.
- Overcoming language barriers: Addicted individuals may live in an area where most people speak another language. Online communities can be accessed from anywhere, so even in the middle of the US, where most people only speak English, someone who only understands Spanish can still be in an addiction support group.
- Cultural diversity: If language barriers aren’t a problem, people of all cultures across the globe can be a part of one addiction support group. This is helpful due to the fact that different perspectives and attitudes mixing together tend to produce more creative and innovative solutions to problems. At the same time, people of different cultures can reach each other and empathize with issues caused by various cultural norms.
- Safety: In many cultures, substance use or addiction is frowned upon or completely unacceptable. Not only may addiction support groups not be available in all areas, but going to a meeting could expose people to harassment, social ostracization, and being disowned by their families. Currently, there are 16 countries where even alcohol is illegal, and admitting to alcoholism could get you in legal trouble.
Of course, there are also downsides to online addiction support groups. Though there are plenty of advantages to holding meetings online, for many people, there is no replacement for face-to-face relationships.
Cons of Online Support Group
There are a lot of different opinions about online interaction. Studies have been conducted on the issue with varying results. Some people find that they are much more comfortable interacting online, while others feel that they can’t make a real connection by chatting with people.
It has been found that direct eye contact and physical touching are essential to human relationships and even release beneficial brain chemicals like dopamine. If they are easily accessible, in-person meetings may very well be a better option for most people, especially since there are a number of other disadvantages to online addiction support groups. These disadvantages include:
- Miscommunication: It can be difficult to convey tone online. People tend to have significantly more misunderstandings when interacting over the Internet because they can’t hear each other’s tone of voice or see facial expressions. This can possibly be helped by the use of video conferencing, but lag and poor picture quality can still cause problems.
- Online bullying: Unfortunately, cyberbullying is still a large problem. It can be very easy for a bully to sign up for an online support group, get access to chat rooms and message boards, and post abusive messages or even try to trigger people into relapse. People don’t tend to try this kind of thing at in-person meetings as they would have to deal with immediate consequences and would not be anonymous.
- Misinformation: People in online communities are also more likely to spread false information that others take as correct without questioning it. It’s easy to post links to online articles that may seem legitimate but are completely wrong, which can be dangerous when it comes to addiction. In-person support groups are more likely to have a basis of scientifically supported information.
- Lack of commitment: Though easy accessibility can be an advantage, it can also make it harder to form an attachment to the group and the individuals in it. Sacrificing more time and energy to get to meetings tends to build more commitment to the group and decrease the chances that an addicted individual will stop attending and relapse.
- Lack of stability: People recovering from addiction need stability. Online support groups tend to be more subject to changes in leadership and members, and the disappearance of online friends can be a relapse trigger. Meeting times may also change more often because it’s easier to do so, and meetings may be canceled more frequently. Avoiding triggers is very important considering the fact that anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of people recovering from addiction disorders relapse at least once, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
It may be best to try both online and in-person meetings to figure out which fits you best. It’s even possible to make use of both types of addiction support groups, and this is the most common solution. The important thing is to make addiction recovery as easy as possible to ensure that you stick with it on a long-term basis.