Katie Leason reports on the internet sites that bring together young people and adults and provide a sense of community for those who would otherwise feel isolated
Jennifer is getting ready to meet her friends in the youth club at 8pm. She has been looking forward to it all day but before then she needs to do a few things. First, she has an appointment at her doctor’s surgery; then she plans to go to the gym to discuss a new workout with her instructor; after that, if time allows, she wants to pop to the library to pick up the latest magazine article on science. Time is against her, though, as it is already 7.15pm: it’s a good thing she can do all of her errands from the comfort of her bedroom.
Jennifer is a member of CZ World, an online community for looked-after children. Run by the charity The Who Cares? Trust, CZ World allows children in care to log into a virtual kingdom on the internet. Once inside the site the children can choose which areas to visit. Professionals are on hand to give advice, but they are seldom the main reason why young people log in. Instead, the main attraction is being able to talk to other young people in care and share experiences.
Suzie Hayman, the site’s agony aunt, says: “These are people who feel singled out, but here everyone understands their situation and is a peer. It helps them to feel part of a community where they are not different. It gives them a sense of belonging. They are not the odd group in the corner but the norm.”
For children to access the site, local authorities must subscribe to it at a cost of between £3.50 and £3.75 for each user each week. So far, 400 children have been equipped with the electronic device needed to use the site and 20 or so log in every day – some for as long as three hours at a time. The youth club, alias the chat room, is where most head for when it opens at 5pm. Each young person adopts a 3D virtual character and a nickname, and communicates through speech bubbles. Conversations are monitored by a professional moderator who can step in if the chat becomes inappropriate. Some young people log in regularly; others only do so when they need extra support.
A survey of young people in December found that users liked the site because it allowed them to meet new friends and communicate with other young people. One young person said: “If this website wasn’t here for me to speak to other children in care I would feel down like I did all the time before. I would have just sat in my room with nothing to do, everything on my mind and getting upset.”
It is clear that for some marginalised groups, online communication with others who face similar situations is a useful and supportive method of interaction. To an extent, research on the medium as a whole has backed this up, with one study suggesting that the social relationships that can develop “are no less valid than those that occur in ‘real’ life” and that virtual community members can experience “a feeling of belonging and well-being”.(1)
That said, however, virtual communities are not necessarily problem-free – or conflict-free, as Philip Cotton,* a mental health service user, found. Cotton, who suffers from depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia and social phobia, has not worked for eight years and is unable to go outside alone. Due to his panic attacks he tends to go out only when his social worker and occupational therapist can accompany him – which means he spends most of his time stuck at home.
Several years ago he came across the Mental Health Foundation’s 1 in 4 Forum, an online discussion group where people with mental health problems, professionals and policymakers discuss mental health. He accesses the site at least once, sometimes as many as three times, a day to read new messages. However, over time, he has learned to be careful about what he reads.
“If a message is disturbing then it may have a knock-on effect on how I’m feeling. If I’m on a downer it can make my thought processes negative and lead me to self-harm,” he says.
Once he came across a message from someone accusing people who self-harm of wasting NHS resources. “I was furious and felt as if I’d been slighted personally.”
Twice he has posted messages himself – when his father died and when he was desperate for support with his self-harming – but each time he received just one response, which left him upset and questioning why he bothered. Now, instead of posting his own messages, he is more inclined to take part in the community by responding to other people’s requests.
As for the social relationships that have developed as a result of the forum, there are pros and cons. Despite most of the communication being anonymous, Cotton says that it “can be very real”, and as if you are talking to someone you are sitting next to. And he feels he can be more honest about his difficulties than he would be with his family and friends. Yet, at the same time, although he feels a sense of belonging to the community, it is in a restricted sense as there tends to be a core of people who dominate the forum.
“You can feel excluded. It can be like a circle in a support group but with the feeling that your chair is outside the circle.”
For all its downsides, Cotton remains a keen forum participant, spending about two hours a day on the site. Being able to identify with other members and finding what they have to say helpful has generally outweighed any niggles.
But in some sectors, virtual communities spell nothing but trouble. Websites and message boards aimed at people with eating disorders are a clear example. The Eating Disorders Association says there are thousands of these sites on the internet and warns that most are dangerous. Many encourage people to eat less, offer tips on how young people can deceive their parents and suggest ways to avoid treatment. While other message boards may offer vulnerable people advice and support on how to deal with an issue, those aimed at people with eating disorders are too often focused on the reverse.
The problem, says a spokesperson for the EDA, is that if people have been suffering alone, these communities can be seductive. “When you are a new visitor on a site and you come across someone who completely understands how you feel and the sorts of things concerning you, it is easy to think that, because they understand you, they must be right. People may feel supported when they are on the site but it’s not the right sort of support. It’s difficult to say there are any advantages or benefits to these sites.”
So it seems that assessing the overall effectiveness of virtual communication for vulnerable people is as yet beyond reach. That some people benefit from it is clear; that others may be hurt by it equally so. As more people go online, its popularity is sure to increase. The challenge is to ensure it is popular for the right reasons.
* Name has been changed
(1) N Vivian, F Sudweeks, Social Networks in Transitional and Virtual Communities, Murdoch University, Australia, 2003