Amy Rossmeisl, Nomi-Kaie Bennett, Tiffany Brown, Billy D. Holcombe, Heather Key, Karisma Turner, and Robin Young
Decades of research have affirmed the important role of social support in maintaining physical and mental health. Social support buffers individuals from the corrosive effects of stress, marginalization, and disabilities. Individuals with minimal social support have statistically higher rates of cardiovascular disease, inflammation, cortisol levels, and impaired immune systems. They are at a much higher risk for debilitating depression. They even have an increased mortality rate.
Social support comes in many guises but the four main types are: emotional support (experiencing empathy, concern, caring); informational support (getting needed advice and data); companionship support (reinforcing feelings of belonging); and functional support (providing financial and material help). However, not all acts of support are equally effective. The most effective forms of social support are those that are perceived as desired and helpful. Take for example the good daughter who dutifully calls each night to check that mother has taken her medications. While the daughter may think she is providing exemplary social support, the mother may not want or need these health queries and perceive the daughter’s calls as infantilizing and frustrating. Indeed, support that is unsolicited and occurs in a context void of desire and/or appreciation is usually unrelated to better mental health or physical health outcomes (Barrera, 1986).
Researchers are working to understand the mechanisms by which social support helps buffer people from stressors. Why does having someone by your side make hard times more bearable? The most common explanation is that social support reduces heightened tension and hyperarousal, enabling an individual to problem-solve more adaptively and avoid catastrophizing their predicament. People use supportive others to say to themselves, “They believe that I will get through this and so, indeed, I probably will,” or “That person has given me faith in myself or the tools I need to get through this predicament.” We seem to be hardwired in such a way that we require others to believe in us and validate us in order to become efficacious and empowered. In the case of functional support, while we may acknowledge that solving the problem is beyond our own abilities, we are confident that, with the help of others, the goal can be achieved.
If social support is so beneficial, then why do so many people reject it? There is scant research that speaks to this pressing issue. However, we can hypothesize that the factors that lead people to turn away from potential sources of social support have historically included a) feelings of shame and pride, b) desires for privacy and autonomy, c) confusion over how to mobilize social support, and d) wanting to avoid being dependent on, or monopolizing someone else’s time and resources. All of these factors are mitigated, to varying degrees, by the new social media techniques.
Psychologists have traditionally operated under the premise that in order to increase social support, they need to help clients mobilize their network of likely helpers which, until recently, consisted solely of close relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and community friends (e.g. congregants of one’s church). However, in our new media-driven world, there are countless new and exciting possibilities for social support.
As psychologists, it is our job to help individuals learn how to access these new sources of social support, and develop procedures that facilitate the right person being matched with the right form of social media at the right time. Today’s media techniques expand the likelihood that an individual will be less defensive and positively perceive and accept social support. Most importantly, it allows psychologists to formulate protocols that help clients access the support they need in a modality that fits their lifestyles and expectations.
Early studies on the Internet Use
The birth of the Internet sparked a drastic change in how humans communicated and interacted with one another and the world around them. The ease of communication among Internet users worldwide created a vast expansion in people’s social networks. What was once distant and foreign was suddenly familiar and accessible. It’s as if the world was at the tips of our fingers… Literally.
Preliminary research on Internet usage focused on the potential hazards of spending time socializing online instead of interacting in a face-to-face format. Confirmation of this fear was reported in 1998 when a study found correlations between Internet use and depression and social isolation (Kraut et al., 1998). The study demonstrated that increased Internet use was associated with more affective distress and social isolation. This phenomenon was labeled the “Internet paradox,” since a tool intended to enhance social support actually appeared to lead to a decrease in social engagement. Other researchers also reported various consequences of Internet use, such as poor familial relations (Nie, 2001), fewer face-to-face interactions (Nie, Hillygus, & Erbring, 2002), and decreased companionship of existing friends and family. However, for every study that documented the negative effects of Internet use, it seemed another study challenged these findings. Researchers found Internet use to be associated with the ability to form new relationships (Bargh & McKenna, 2000), increased contact with family members (Katz & Aspden, 1995), and more sociable attitudes (Cole & Robinson, 2002). To this day, studies on Internet use and social support continue to render inconsistent findings, illustrating the complex nature of this relationship, and the need for future research and consideration.
The following article discusses the advantages, disadvantages, and clinical utilities of Internet-based media used to obtain and enhance social support.
Research investigating the effects of social networking sites on social support has helped clarify the paradoxical findings elicited by earlier Internet studies (Gangadharbatla, 2007). The study found that Internet self-efficacy, need to belong, and collective self-esteem have a positive influence on attitudes toward social networking sites (such as Facebook). For individuals who felt more confident in their ability to use the Internet, and who anticipated fewer technological problems, the use of social networking sites was associated with increased social support and decreased depression. Conversely, fewer benefits resulted from social networking sites when individuals perceived the experience as frustrating and anxiety provoking. The study also revealed that greater overall Internet use led to more emails sent to friends, family, and acquaintances, enhanced social support, and less depression. Recent studies have demonstrated the importance of motivation on the effects of time spent online. The effects of time spent online appear to be moderated by the motivational factors driving Internet use (Selfhout, Branje, Delsing, ter Bogt, & Meeus, 2009). For individuals who use the Internet to obtain information, longer Internet usage is associated with greater social isolation and depression. However, for individuals who use the Internet for connecting with others, time spent online is associated with increased social support and decreased depression. These and other such studies helped change the way researchers asked questions about social networking sites and social support, paving the way for future advances in the field.
Other studies have also validated the utility of Facebook as a source of social support. Facebook users report receiving more informational and emotional support than non-users, as well as greater maintenance of previous and existing relationships (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). An additional study found that while feelings of both connection and disconnection were associated with initial Facebook use, only feelings of connection decreased when participants were asked to refrain from Facebook. These results suggest that while feeling disconnected motivates people to use Facebook, Facebook use is successful in making one feel more connected (Sheldon, Abad, & Hinsch, 2011).
Additionally, the benefits of Facebook use appear to be significantly greater for individuals with low self-esteem, compared to their confident counterparts. For those with low self-esteem and low life satisfaction, more time spent on Facebook was associated with an increased sense of social support. Similarly, research has confirmed that Facebook use may benefit individuals with symptoms of depression. In a study investigating the relationship between Facebook use and depression, 25% of Facebook users disclosed one or more depressive symptoms in their status updates over the past year, while 2.5% of users met the criteria for a major depressive episode (Moreno et al., 2011). When individuals posted comments containing depressive symptoms, their pages contained significantly more comments of encouragement and reinforcement from other Facebook users. Thus, as users posted their despair, their support team came through with words of encouragement. An important finding revealed that the total number of Facebook friends was not correlated with the number of references to depression, indicating that it is the involvement, and not the size, of one’s social network that was activated by despairing postings. This willingness to openly discuss depression could potentially reduce the stigma surrounding mental health disorders.
These and other such findings have offered a much more optimistic view for the future benefits of social networking sites such as Facebook. For some individuals, the use of social networking sites may offer therapeutic benefits, such as enhanced social support, higher self-esteem, and decreased depression. However, clinicians need to consider the following questions in order to help identify which of their clients may benefit from the use of social networking sites, and which may be at risk:
1. Does the client feel confident using the Internet safely and efficiently?
2. Would belonging to a larger social group enhance the client’s self-image?
3. Are there reliable offline social supports for the client?
4. Are there more online social supports for the client?
Individuals who answer these questions in the affirmative are ideal candidates to use social networking sites as an adjunct to their therapy.
Livecasting refers to any kind of audio or visual sharing that occurs over the Internet. Livecasting allows individuals to interact with a broad audience of people from around the world. People look forward to receiving comments and feedback about their video(s), as these responses represent the potential for attention, validation, and even fame. Many people yearn for their livecast to “go viral.” This fame is manifested in the form of “hits” and “likes” (Ulhs & Greenfield, 2012). The influx of hits and likes on YouTube pages are like bursts of positive reinforcement for the video makers. This provides users with a sense of pride, friendships with distant users, and perpetuates connectedness with friends and family. Livecasting strengthens social support by allowing individuals to have their fifteen minutes of fame, and offering a sense of achievement. In today’s media-driven world, we seek validation everyday, and hope to have our successes recognized by as many as possible. One of the quickest route to group recognition is livecasting.
Though it may be the most widely used, YouTube is not the only form of livecasting that can result in popularity and social support among individuals. Other forms of livecasting include sites such as TalkShoe, LiveCast.com, Justin.tv, BlogTalkRadio, SHOUTcast, and Live365. Developed by Dave Nelse in 2005, TalkShoe is an Internet radio show that incorporates live group calls, conversations, discussions, and interactive podcasts. Members discuss various topics, including religion, music, travel, business, and other interests. Justin.tv was founded in 2006 and allows members to broadcast, watch, and interact with live streaming video. Categories of viewing and interaction include topics such as entertainment, animals, and education. There are channel schedules that allow viewers to bookmark favorites and watch live shows. BlogTalkRadio is an online radio talk show site that enables individuals from around the world to host their own talk show. This site is one of the largest, fastest-growing sites on the Internet. Similar to other livecasting sites, SHOUTcast is a professional and community online radio station, which can accommodate large amounts of Internet radio listeners. Live365 is a site for music lovers. This Internet radio site allows members to create their own online radio stations and listen to other members’ stations as well.
Research has supported the idea that social media, such as livecasting, can have a positive effect on its viewers as well as its creators. Haridakis and Hanson (2009) found that while viewers who post comments about YouTube videos gain social recognition and prestige, individuals who watch, share and discuss videos with their friends, family, and social networks also gain social cohesiveness and a sense of being part of the “in group”. Thus, livecasting is a means of social support for both creator and consumer. While examining the impact of popular media on adolescents’ practices and future goals, Uhls and Greenfield (2012) discovered that adolescents (ages 10-12) use livecasting sites as a way of achieving their goal of fame. Most of the adolescent participants in the study used online video sharing sites in order to establish popularity and have a captivating audience outside of their immediate environments.
Frequent livecasters post their videos in a public forum, allowing them to be readily accessible to their friends, family, and acquaintances. However, some users create feelings of selectivity and prestige on YouTube by changing their privacy settings, and making their posts more exclusive to their ever-expanding fan base. Although this fame may not be mutual or reciprocal, it still provides a sense of social support for the user. Nonetheless, social support is stronger when there are bidirectional exchanges rather than uncontrollable fandom (Lange, 2008).
Psychologists can learn to incorporate livecasting into the treatment plans for certain clients. For example, a shy adolescent may be encouraged to share his or her favorite YouTube postings with the therapist, or classmates and others who may be interested. Other clients may want to post performances of their pets or community events for their small circle of friends and family. When clinicians use livecasting in their clinical practice, it can be tailored to the individual needs of the client. For example, a video sharing on YouTube has been designed to treat elderly patients diagnosed with dementia. Specifically, in reminiscence therapy, dementia patients talk about past events and activities with others, and these interviews are later posted on YouTube. Together, the client and therapist discuss past experiences, social interests and family interactions. In one study, researchers conducted interviews with participants six weeks after the program started, and found improvements in mood, quality of life, communication abilities, and engagement in groups (Rettner, 2011).
Research has confirmed the obvious: individuals are increasingly finding social support online in the form of mutual aid groups, Internet news groups, and electronic bulletin boards. Many of these self-help websites are becoming popular due in part to their free membership and accessibility. Surprisingly, research suggests that these electronically-mediated support groups provide many, if not all, of the same benefits offered by face-to-face mental health groups, such as mutual problem solving, sharing of information, expressing feelings, mutual support, empathy, and catharsis. They also possess advantages that are distinct from face-to-face groups; online groups eliminate barriers of time and distance, and allow for worldwide participation, contributing richer information and perspectives to the group (Finn, 1999). The ever-widening gap between of the availability of qualified, affordable providers and the number of people seeking mental health services can be significantly reduced by these social support websites. Peer equality, online anonymity, two-way learning, accessible professional medicine, and the ability for individuals with rare disorders to find others struggling with a similar condition, are among the benefits and conveniences generated from online self-help groups (Madara, 1997).
Studies have found that online groups are not only beneficial for individuals suffering from mental distress, but they can also provide a means of support for the family members and friends as well. Perron (2002) found that such online self-help groups are very beneficial for caregivers of individuals with mental illnesses. The study found that the groups allowed members to achieve catharsis, express support for other group members, and receive support from people with similar issues. The group also gave members the opportunity to immediately express themselves after an emotional event, a therapeutic benefit rarely available in face-to-face groups.
Another study, which examined online support groups for women who experienced postpartum depression, found that online support groups provided a means for emotional, informational, and instrumental support. It also found that the groups helped women develop a sense of competence, which led to elevated social engagement, self-determination, and personal empowerment. The women also benefitted from the freedom of expression and access to empathic others provided by such online support groups (Evans, Donelle, & Hume-Loveland, 2012). Similarly, Malik and Coulson (2010) analyzed the characteristics and patterns of communication in an online infertility support group. They also found that the group served as a resource for informational guidance, mutual support, and empathy among people dealing with issues of fertility.
Some researchers have tried to assess who would benefit more from online versus in-person services, but these studies are still in their infancy. Setoyama, Yamazaki, and Nakayama (2011) examined the commonalities of face-to-face support groups and online communities for breast cancer patients. They found that breast cancer patients can benefit from online and face-to face groups, but patients benefit most if they receive support from both concurrently.
Overall, online groups have demonstrated their advantageous qualities. They serve as a resource for social support, providing empathy, encouragement, information, advice, hope, and a sense of community. Their online availability makes them more convenient and accessible, while the anonymity enhances a feeling of safety, reduces stigmatization and discrimination, and promotes self-disclosure, mutual support, and problem-solving (Hsiung, 2000). A number of therapeutic interventions flow from these findings:
1. Every client should be given a list of online support groups to supplement and enhance their individual psychotherapy. If individuals choose not to use them nothing is lost, but for many the added benefits will be significant as in the research cited above.
2. Psychologists with specialized practices should list the best social support websites for their patient population on their websites.
3. Psychologists should work with hospitals and general practitioners so that patients who are economically unable to access mental health care can still find the social support they need to thrive.
Family reunions are not a new phenomenon. However, what is new is that increasingly more families are initiating family reunions as a way of knitting the social support network. The reunions are bringing extended families together from different regions of the country, even continents. The planning, rituals, and reunion experience are increasingly extensive and elaborate. From creating t-shirts to using online forums for year-round planning, families put much effort and communication into the preparation of the reunion (English, 2006).
The family reunion serves a number of important functions, and plays an integral part in providing families with invaluable social support. First, it is a way to maintain feelings of belongingness and provide a sense of clanship. In American history, family reunions have been used to maintain family loyalty throughout times of economic, social, and political change. Each ethnic group values and celebrates family history in its own unique way, and family reunions are the perfect opportunity to retell your family’s role in history. The importance of family in the African-American community is uniquely linked to the tumultuous times of slavery. However, when efforts of the Civil Rights movement became realized, and African-Americans were afforded more equality, the focus on family weakened. As such, family reunions were implemented as a way of enhancing familial ties and staying connected to family roots and traditions (McCoy, 2011). Afro-Caribbean transnational families increasingly rely on family reunions to bring children and grandchildren home to Trinidad or Jamaica, or to visit the US mainland. Asian families are now traveling thousands of miles to bridge the cultural and geographical splinters of modern-day life. Regardless of ethnicity, family reunions remain the only time extended family members have an opportunity to come together for an event unrelated to marriage or death, that is, unrelated to the family entrances or exits (Sutton, 2004).
A second important function of family reunions is to help individuals gain access to family resources in an easy, one-stop venue. For example, upon telling Aunt Alice about your desire to go to New Mexico for vacation, she will drag you over to your third cousin who lives on a ranch there, and would be happy to host you and your family. Similarly, discussing the financial struggles of college at family reunions has prompted many a family to generate a reunion college fund available to those in need. This type of financial assistance exemplifies the utility of social networks in generating instrumental support.
The sharing of information at family reunions offers invaluable informational support that that an individual might not be able to obtain elsewhere. Family reunions are a way of educating young family members about their elders, and their contributions to society (Taylor, 2001). Indeed, 59% of adolescents report learning new and meaningful information about grandparents from family reunions (King & Elder, 2010). Reunions are also a way of learning important traditions unique to that family. The sharing of recipes passed down from generation to generation is among one of the oldest rituals performed at family gatherings. These recipes serve as a reminder of your family’s history, as they are remembered and replicated throughout the year. The extensive planning and preparation required for family reunions also helps to keep family members connected throughout the year. Those in charge of organizing family reunions must maintain regular contact with each family member, as they are intimately involved in obtaining information about, and documenting the challenges and accomplishments of individuals over the past year.
Family reunions also provide a sense of strength and tranquility. Preliminary studies on families of greylag geese have demonstrated a physiological basis for the benefits of social support (Scheiber, Kotrschal, & Weiß, 2009). When a family of second-generation greylag geese was brought together for a "reunion," the female geese of both generations exhibited a decrease in glucocorticoid levels, but no change was found in the male geese. When accompanied by their family, second-generation male geese were more likely to be the victors of aggressive encounters with other geese who were without kin. While female geese exhibited direct physiological benefits from family reunions, male geese benefitted indirectly as a result of their family’s presence, representing a social ally. It would appear as though we share commonalities with these geese, as research on adolescents has shown that human family rituals are associated with higher self-esteem and less anxiety (Fiese & Kline, 1993).
The virtues of family reunions vary from individual to individual. Lillian Daniels, an 81-year-old African-American female, stated that she planned her family’s first reunion in an effort to connect her family members with one another. She also wanted her children and grandchildren to feel a sense of closeness with each other; an opportunity she was not afforded growing up. She went on to explain how family reunions teach people how to appreciate family diversity. Mrs. Daniels wants her family to be able to rely on one another, and believes that the family reunion is a physical reminder and reflection of the love she has for her family. Ah! The wisdom of elders.
However, family reunions are not always a positive experience, and may not be the best source of social support. Studying the effects of family reunion, Tseng et al. (1993) found that for some, the reunion reawakened feelings of homesickness, while others found it distressing to hear of family misfortunes they were unable to prevent, and suffered from "survivor guilt.” Tseng et al. also found that during family reunions, old family conflicts were rekindled, while new ones arose. While still understudied, it appears that there are a number of potential negative side effects for a significant minority of family reunion attendees.
There are a number of ways psychologists can take advantage of this powerful social network mechanism. First, psychologists should respect if their patient is hesitant to attend a family reunion and decipher if it would be a more positive or negative experience. Second, for women between 40 and 59 years old, family reunions seem particularly important and beneficial (Braithwaite & Leach, 1996). With clients in this age group looking for a social support, organizing such an event may be very useful. Third, the session prior to the family reunion may be an excellent time for clients to do a genogram with their therapist so important issues in the client’s life can be traced throughout the family tree and answers sought for questions that linger about one’s heritage.
Memorial sites and social media
Many of our most introspective and appreciative moments about life only come after we’ve experienced death of a loved one. Time is never more valued than when we realize there is none remaining, and words are never more passionately pursued than when we cannot say them or take them back. However, traditionally grief seems to have a social expiration date, a point at which conversations about what could have been are discouraged, and supporters begin to introduce concepts of ‘moving on’.
Remembering conversations are a narrative therapeutic approach that not only encourages the continued development of a relationship with the deceased, but also is a powerful tool in marshaling the sustained social support of friends and relatives who have passed away. Remembering conversations promote the telling of stories that intentionally keep the relationship with the deceased salient. One actively tries to re-invigorate the ideals, beliefs, and motivations of the deceased into the daily lives of the living. Indeed, this is a great shift from the finality that death historically has embodied. It is through remembering conversations, particularly the development of digital media that the external comfort and acceptability of social support systems is extended beyond death, and the relationship can be supported indefinitely.
As early as the 16th century, mothers began securing portraits of deceased babies. Mander and Marshall (2003) state that these portraits allowed the relationship with the child to feel more ‘real’. Having these portraits in the home invited frequent memories and stimulated conversations about the child. Contemporary media, likewise, extends our relationship with the deceased and allows for all their friends and acquaintances to remain intertwined. Technology makes grieving and celebrating a collective phenomenon rather than a solo ritual. Today, we give names to our stillborn babies and celebrate their birthdays. Our loved ones live within regularly updated memorial pages on Facebook, and instead of, or in addition to prayer, we speak directly to our deceased by posting a message online.
Perhaps most incredible is that the social support that use to diminish over time, can now be sustained over the remainder of a lifetime. Where kind words about the deceased were once reserved for special occasions (anniversary of death, birthday, etc), the relationship is no longer buried in a photo album with the obituary but cultivated on the World Wide Web. Indeed it seems that our ability to continue our connections with the deceased has allowed us to bend the permanency of death, and therefore enhance our acceptance of it. In March 2012, the story of Faron Butler was one of many that captured the importance of digitally retrievable audio from cellular phones. Butler, who lost his 14-year-old daughter to cancer, would often listen to various messages from his daughter when he needed encouragement on a particularly difficult day. After having held onto these messages for eight months, they were abruptly deleted by his cell phone carrier. Though some may argue that the retaining of voicemail messages perpetuates denial, it may be more indicative of a coping behavior that allows mourners to induce remembering conversations. Consider the evolution of voicemail messaging, where our personalities are evident in our greetings. Less common today are the impersonal ‘leave your name and number’ recordings. Instead, our photos accompany our phone numbers, we now select our favorite songs for listeners to hear while they wait to leave a message, and we personalize our greetings with phrases that indicate core beliefs such as ‘Have a blessed day’. In turn, these practices allow others not just to hear the voices of the deceased, but remember how they lived and what they might have said to them that day, if only they were able to pick up.
MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook provide a means for us to digitally memorialize our lives and the lives of the deceased. The creation of memorial pages on social networking sites essentially allow the ritualized and traditional eulogy to continue over time and engage friends and family, as well as virtual strangers. A study conducted by Kern et al. (2012), revealed that people use such pages to continue conversations with the dead, rather than simply as a medium for personal grieving. This appears to encourage support from strangers who adopt a third person tone, in order to join in a direct conversation with the loved one about the deceased individual. The use of such pages has become so popular that many sites will ensure that the page of a deceased person will never be deleted unless formally requested by the family. As such, conversations with the deceased can continue and remembering is made easier.
Of course, extending the electronic life of the deceased can be problematic. Consider the potential problems in a proposed Belgian project that will create Facebook pages for each of the 27,594 Allied soldiers who were killed in Belgium during WWII as well as the current Facebook accounts for Anne Frank and the Auschwitz memorial site!
Now the clinician has new tools to help clients reach out to the most important others in their client’s life. First, psychologists need to normalize the need of a grieving patient to engage the electronic life of a loved one. Clients in need of social support from a deceased friend or relative may find that writing emails or posting messages on Facebook are as meaningful now as they were when the person was alive. They need to take joy in their ability to say what they want to say in a format that is familiar and allows them to feel closer to the loved one. Second, psychologists may need to help other patients navigate what will happen to their loved one’s electronic life. Are we responsible for keeping the Facebook page of our mother up indefinitely and is it unloving to terminate it? Third, we need to research and find out when such sites become dysfunctional and morose. Finally, when working with terminally ill or elderly patients, we need to empower them to decide whether or not they would like their Facebook pages to cease or if they would like them converted to commemorative pages. If they want a commemorative page, what personal information would they like deleted?
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. Parasocial relationships are most common with celebrities, organizations (such as sports teams) or television stars. Parasocial relationships expand the social network in a way that negates the chance of rejection and empowers individuals to model and identify with individuals of their choosing who naturally elicit an empathic response. For some, the one sided nature of the relationship is a relief from strained complementary relationships in their real life (Schramm & Wirth, 2010). Parasocial relationships are cultivated by the media to resemble face-to-face relationships. Over time, so many experiences are shared with John Daily or Justin Beiber or Jay-Z that we develop an intimacy and friendship with the media user and feel that they know and understand us (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985).
In the past, parasocial relationships occurred predominantly with television personas. Now, these relationships also occur between individuals and their favorite bloggers, social media users, and gamers. The nature and intimacy of parasocial relationships has also matured. Reality television allows viewers to share the most intimate and personal lives of television personas, and celebrities openly share their opinions and activities through various social media outlets such as twitter and Facebook. Additionally, the Internet allows for 24-hour access to media users, and increased Internet dependency may lead to increased parasocial interactions (Cole & Leets, 1999). While parasocial relationships still remain one-sided, they have transformed into more interactive environments, allowing individuals to communicate with their media personas, and increasing the intimacy and strength of the parasocial relationship.
Despite the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships, there are numerous similarities between these relationships and more traditional social relationships (Giles, 2002). Parasocial relationships are voluntary, provide companionship, and are influenced by social attraction (Cole & Leets, 1999). Furthermore, viewers experience a connection with the media user and express feelings of affection, gratitude, longing, encouragement, and loyalty towards them. Just as relational maintenance is important in sustaining a relationship with our real life friends and family, relational maintenance also occurs in parasocial relationships (Sanderson, 2009), through events such as weekly viewings of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Blogs and social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, increase the ease with which viewers can express their feelings. Parasocial relationships are popular within these online communities, and this may be due to the increased sense of “knowing” the personas, or the perception of parasocial interactions as having a high reward and no chance of rejection (Cole & Leets, 1999).
Historically, parasocial relationships were viewed as pathological and a symptom of loneliness, isolation and social anxieties. However, Rubin et al. (1985) found there was no correlation between loneliness and the intensity of viewers’ parasocial relationship with onscreen characters. Other research has decreased the stigma of such relationships and led clinicians to believe that such relationships can broaden one’s social network rather than restrict it.
Parasocial relationships are important to viewers, and in many ways advantageous because of the support that the viewer gains from the relationship. Many seriously ill people find afternoons with Oprah or Ellen the one chance in the day to see a friend without stress and gain strength from their relationship with the hostess. Many narcissistic individuals who cannot sustain relationships find the longevity of parasocial relationships of paramount importance. Indeed, attachment style has been shown to predict who is most likely to form these relationships; not surprisingly, anxious-ambivalent individuals are the most likely to form parasocial bonds, and avoidant individuals are the least likely to develop such relationships. Individuals with parasocial relationships often express appreciation towards their favorite personas for helping them to get through tough times. Additionally, some viewers perceive the personas as helping to significantly shape their own identity (Sanderson, 2009). The support that parasocial relationships provide is of substantial value to the viewers that engage in them, and with new social media techniques, these relationships are a viable way to expand individuals’ social networks.
Parasocial relationships do come with many risks. First, some individuals will ignore bidirectional real relationships to spend time with their parasocial personae. Second, given the emotional investment devoted to parasocial relationships and the strong attachments, viewers grieve when opportunities to view the media user conclude or when the media user is no longer accessible. Comparable to the endings of face-to-face relationships, viewers experience loss and worry that their parasocial relationship will come to an end (Cohen, 2004).
Clinically, the most important thing is for psychologists to capitalize on affirming how personas can enhance a client’s social network and provide needed companionship with a chosen individual. Instead of viewing parasocial relationships as limiting real relationships, they should be validated and used as the basis for understanding the type of real life relationships that would bring the client the greatest satisfaction. Psychologists working with adolescents may want to capitalize on the ability of personas to provide both comfort and positive role models.
The Modern Day Library
In a day and age where insurance premiums have increased and minority alliances with clinicians have stalled, research has shifted focus to non-traditional forms of therapy and social support. Today’s library system offers a new social support forum without the insurance authorization or minimum co-pay. The library is no longer the quietest building in town. Now, it serves as a lively information gateway for all topics in all types of media (books, magazines, online material, DVDs, etc.) without the nominal purchase fee required by a local coffee shop or bookstore. For those who cannot afford the lattes at Starbucks or the paperbacks at Barnes and Noble, libraries are a far more affordable destination. For the many without home computers, libraries are the way to email friends and family, do a job search, or read news from around the world. Our libraries house social events and cultural activities without the noise of a party. It is comfortable to go the library alone and one need not follow any dress code to be acceptable. Embedded within the concrete walls, the bright lights, and comfortable seats are opportunities for personal growth, training, friendship, and fellowship.
Aabø, Audunson, and Vårheim (2010) identified six functions of the modern library: a community square, a location for diversity, a public sphere, a building offering cultural activities, a place for joint activities with friends and family, and a meta-meeting place where various community groups can gather to work on common goals. Hence, the public library system of the twenty-first century serves as more than just a location to view books and films in solitude. The library of today is a place of safety and refuge, and serves as “the third place” to hang out and gain a social identity (the other two places being home and work). As patron visits have increased, the public library has evolved into a multi-purpose institution with specific programs tailored to the local communities. McKechnie et al. (2004) found that visitors feel a sense of safety and ownership over the libraries, allowing their children to play freely and engage in intellectually and culturally stimulating activities not available in other settings.
Librarians are now knowledge resource specialists, adjunct social workers, and the GPS to community resources. Many times a day, librarians are asked for help finding books or brochures on a bevy of mental health issues, including self-esteem, conflict resolution, drug cessation, and human development. A common occurrence may include a librarian helping a student find books on depression and suicide. As the student talks to the librarian, she offers a few moments of attention, but she may also give the student links to professional services in the school or the community.
In many ways, the library affords patrons a rich source of social capital. Johnson (2012) defines social capital as “a community resource that enables people to work together to bring about positive change” (p.7). By interacting with others in a safe, resourceful environment, individuals have access to neighborhood sources of support that help uplift their spirits or provide an intervention to a daily or recurrent stressor. Social capital promotes collective efficacy, and builds a foundation of trust among community residents. In this way, children’s story hours, adult book clubs, English conversation classes and community meet ups flourish in today’s libraries, providing a sense of belonging and a prosperous lifestyle.
While the recent economic recession has thrown a major wrench into many community activities, it has prompted many people to increase their utilization of the services and cultural events offered by the library. Job applications, resume workshops, and unemployment services can be found at most libraries, for free and often, during evening hours. When these groups meet on a regular basis, patrons form informal social networks. Through these networks, opportunities for motivational check-ins are created, in the same fashion that mental health appointments motivate progress towards goal completion. Members of these networks feel that they are receiving the same unbiased opinions and social support as they would receive from a therapist, but are shielded from the sometimes critical or negative stigma that is still associated with formal clinical services and the associated financial burdens.
With legal and undocumented immigrants totaling over 16% of the United States population, social and literary services have been tailored to meet their needs in many library settings. Many library systems, including the New York Public Library, house resources on immigration and naturalization, tutoring, and English-immersion courses within the library and community (The New York Public Library, 2012).
In a study investigating library use among US-born citizens and immigrants in the US, 31% of households reported having gone to the library in the past month (Burke, 2008). Households were then compared based on region of origin, and categorized according to library use in the past month. Library use in the past month differed significantly between the low-use (European, Central American/Mexican, Canadian/other North American, Caribbean, East European, and Middle Eastern), middle-use (African, US native-born, and East Asian), and high-use households (South Asian, Southeast, Asian, and South American). These cultural disparities suggest that libraries need to innovate and find ways of attracting all cultural groups to the riches of the library.
A 2008 study found that among Latinos, only 47% have Internet access at home or work and so many rely on the library to access the Internet (Flores & Pachon, 2008). The same study found that, among Latinos who visited the library at least once each week, 28.8% reported using it to study/complete homework and 69.1% used it to read/borrow books.
Data from Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library system found that during the 2007-2008 school year, almost 4,000 tutoring sessions were scheduled (Huffman & Rua, 2008). Most of the tutoring sessions were given to immigrant, minority, and disadvantaged children who would otherwise not be able to receive these services. Library systems nationwide are also responding to patrons who have limited time to read or visit a local branch by increasing funding for audio and electronic books, or e-books. A survey of 41 library systems in major metropolitan areas revealed that 97.6% had e-books, in circulation for free (Genco, 2009). Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Libraries Report to the Community 2012 found that patrons from the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Library system downloaded more than 188,000 audio or e-books from June 2011 to June 2012. This service is clearly providing much information and entertainment at no cost to the patron. Psychologists who help appropriate clients connect to their local library in a meaningful way are giving them a tool that they can use to plan and plant both solutions to problems and dreams for the future.
From Left to Right: Nomi-Kaie Bennett, Amy Rossmeisl, Karimsa Turner, Billy D. Holcombe, Robin Young, Tiffany Brown, and Heather Key. The authors are doctoral students at Howard University.
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