Parents and internet addicts take note: participating in online discussion forums may be good for your health, according to new research. The findings may also show negative health consequences associated with using Facebook and other social media.
The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, has found that internet discussion forums not only have positive links to well-being but are even associated with increased community engagement offline, contrary to common perception.
Further, the Researchers found, online forums have benefits for both individuals and wider society and are of greater importance than previously realized.
Although seemingly made obsolete in the past decade by social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, forums are still regularly used by around 20% of online users in the US. The study's authors believe this value may be because forums represent one of the last remaining places online that afford the user anonymous interaction.
In the research, users were approached on a range of discussion forums serving a wide variety of interests, hobbies and lifestyles. Those successfully enrolled in the study were classified in two groups: those whose forum subject could be considered stigmatized (such as those dealing with depression, mental health, or a particular parenting choice) or non-stigma-related forums (such as those for car enthusiasts, weight lifters and social issues).
Participants were asked a set of questions about their motivations for joining the discussion forum, the realization of their expectations, their degree of identification with other forum users, their satisfaction with life and their offline engagement with issues discussed on the forum.
The study's lead author, Dr Louise Pendry of the University of Exeter, said: "Our findings paint a more optimistic picture of old-style online discussion forums. Often we browse forums just hoping to find answers to our questions. In fact, as well as finding answers, our study showed users often discover that forums are a source of great support, especially those seeking information about more stigmatising conditions. Moreover, we found that users of both forum types who engaged more with other forum users showed a greater willingness to get involved in offline activities related to the forum, such as volunteering, donating or campaigning."
Dr Jessica Salvatore of Sweet Briar College, added: "What we are seeing here is that forum users who get more involved develop strong links with other users. They come to see themselves as more identified with other forum users. And then these more identified users see the greatest benefits, in terms of positive links with mental health and getting involved offline. In a nutshell, the more users put into the forum, the more they get back, and the pay-off for both users themselves and society at large can be significant."
The findings raise interesting questions about Facebook, which is notoriously strict about allowing people to disguise their identities. While this may help with some aspects, such as spam, it does not encourage the full honesty and range of discussion found in forums that allow for anonymity. This could explain several studies that linked increased social media usage to lower self esteem and happiness levels.