Online Social Support: Buffer for everyday discrimination?
Social media is all-pervasive entity in our lives, and its boons and banes have been extensively debated, not only within the Psychology community but also in popular culture, at large. There is no doubt that social media use is pitted with numerous disadvantages to its users, as research makes clear – there is a consistent link between social media use and body image concerns (Fardouly & Vartanian, 2016), poor academic performance (Abdulhai, Samadi, & Gharleghi, 2014), lowered self-esteem (Woods, & Scott, 2016) and negative affect (Brooks, 2015). Despite this overwhelming evidence of the numerous pitfalls of social media, the graphs depicting social media usage continue to break the roofs – Diwanji (2020) reported that the number of social media users in India stood at a staggering 326.1 million in 2018, and is expected to be almost 448 million in 2023. The prime reason for this tremendous support for social media despite its ills, is clear from its very name – social media offers its users a sense of ‘social’ connectedness. In fact, this phenomenon has been garnering a lot of attention from the research community in recent times, mostly because of its sheer relevance. Online Social Support (OSS) refers to the tangible and intangible assistance and companionship received from the individuals in one’s online circle or community found on a wide variety of online platforms.OSS has four sub-types, as defined by Nick et al (2018) – esteem/emotional support (esteem and acceptance, expressions of intimacy or helping to manage one’s emotional state); social companionship (feeling like one belongs); informational support (defining, understanding, and coping with problematic events, providing advice and perspective); and instrumental support (financial and other tangible assistance).
Although it may seem very ethereal, the effects of OSS are experienced as being very real and rewarding – as real as in-person social support. What is interesting is that the very typology of OSS detailed above, are in fact based on the classification of in-person support typology given by Cohen and Wills (1985). A study using data from six waves of a longitudinal study found that social networking sites can be effective tools for receiving social support (Utz & Breuer, 2017). Another study found that the use of online chat platforms contributes to decreased offline estrangement and depression, and increased happiness (Kang, 2007). A study with over 300 participants also found that seeking social support online (as measured through the number of friends on social networking sites) was positively correlated to supportive interactions, affect, perceived social support, sense of community, and life satisfaction (Oh, Ozkaya, & LaRose, 2014). Evidently, OSS confers most of the protective benefits afforded by social support sought offline.
One of the key areas of ‘social support’ research, however, deals with the efficacy of social support in mitigating the impact of discrimination. This premise gathers heavy clout when looked at in terms of marginalized communities, who face the brunt of severe explicit and implicit discrimination on a regular basis. Everyday discrimination or perceived discrimination is the belief that one has experienced unfair treatment by individuals and social institutions, and that this treatment was based on personal characteristics such as race, gender, or weight (Williams & Mohammed, 2009).
Empirical evidence shows the strong hand of social support in improving the psychological well-being of those in marginalized communities (Ajrouch, Reisine, Lim, Sohn, & Ismail, 2008; Qin, Nguyen, Mouzon, Hamler, & Wang, 2020; Jasinskaja-Lahti, Liebkind, Jaakkola, & Reuter, 2006).Seeing that OSS comes close to social support in delivering benefits begs the question – can OSS, like offline social support help in curbing the effects of everyday discrimination? We conducted an empirical study in this regard – to understand the relation between OSS and everyday discrimination. We also wanted to understand how age affects the levels of everyday discrimination and OSS. The study, conducted in pre-COVID 2020, collected data via an online form. Our non-probability sampling technique yielded 288 participants between the ages of 17 to 25 (µ =19.79) with 78 males and 110 females. To collect our data, we used The OSS Scale, developed by Nick (2016) and The Everyday Discrimination Scale (Williams, Yan Yu, Jackson, & Anderson, 1997). As per expectations, the components of OSS were all significantly positively correlated to each other and to the overall level of OSS at p < 0.01. We noted that higher levels of OSS were related to lower levels of everyday discrimination, although none of these correlations were significant. There were no significant correlations observed for any variables with age. However, weak negative correlations of age were observed with the three components of OSS.
The results of this particular study seemingly lay down a foundation for abolishing various misconceptions and strengthen the framework of social support provided through online platforms. As with any research, limitations experienced during the study must be carefully perceived to ensure fitting generalizations as well as appropriate and well-defined actions for the future. One of the foremost restrictions this study faced was in terms of the limited and confined sampling as confirmed by the skewed results of the Shapiro Wilk Normality Test. Such results tend to reduce the power of generalizability typically chartered to the quantitative research design. Additionally, while conducting any empirical research with a sample oriented towards human behaviour, it is essential to give a minutiae amount of leeway to the presence of various forms of confounding variables that cannot be eradicated. What can OSS truly do for us? This was a question that resonated in our mind throughout the trajectory of this study. Capitalizing on OSS platforms is one of the most eminent future directions that the empirical findings point to.
As per the research conducted by Tanis (2012), it was observed that there has been an overwhelming use of online platforms to help like-minded people connect and build their community regardless of various geophysical boundaries. Such a ubiquitous platform can be used to provide a level of psychological independence to diverse minority communities, while empowering them with a sense of community and togetherness.
Changing cultural norms and implementation of laws to prevent discrimination in a country such as India is a gruelling task, and OSS provides a plausible alternative to bridging societal chasms. While OSS platforms were reserved mainly for the youth, their use has transcended generational boundaries in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, the number of users of such platforms as well as the notable role played by them has become a point of reflection across research communities and popular media. Hauken (2020) in her article writes about the advantages of social support through the trying times of the pandemic, in terms of curbing social isolation, emotional guidance, and practical financial help. These avenues of support detailed by Hauken, are in fact the very components of OSS – as described earlier! This clearly goes to show that OSS delivered in a targeted fashion, especially under the trying circumstances that the world is navigating today, holds immense potential to aid the social man across the lifespan.
Though the advantages of OSS have permeated to all age groups and levels of society, it has become immensely important to lay down guidelines for its proper usage. Developing healthy and constructive boundaries while engaging in the use of such platforms, becomes an important life skill that needs to be addressed across generations. Many platforms do not have stringent guidelines or supervision in terms of the messages and information that can be shared. In such circumstances, it is very necessary to not only demand better guidelines from these platforms but also advocate for updated cyber laws. As individuals, we need to take a step back and monitor our behaviour in terms of the content that we post about sensitive and emotional issues hence preserving the silver lining of OSS.
While we shed light on the numerous merits of seeking social support online, the dialogue surrounding the highs and lows of social media use will continue, with parties on both sides of the aisle making their valid points. However, one thing is clear – social media has established itself as an omnipresent entity in our worlds and is here to stay. This being the case, it is up to us, the users of social media, to find the brightest aspects of its use and to capitalize on them. This is what we propose OSS to be – a means to harness the very best virtues that social media has to offer.