Yes, online communities pose risks for young people, but they are also important sources of support


Aristotle called humans “the social animal,” and people have recognized for centuries that young people must be in community to become healthy adults. The ongoing pandemic has raised concerns about the effects of isolation on children and adolescents. social and psychological growth.

But while today’s youth cannot meet in person as often as they want, they are not necessarily isolated. They have long used online communities to explore their identities and conduct their social lives.

They are involved in anonymous hip-hop discussion forums, ADHD support groups on Facebook, biology class group chats on Instagram, and comment sections under popular YouTube videos. There are a large number of these communities online and collectively they cover a wide range of topics. They are also often at the heart of their users’ lives. However, parents, educators and psychologists frequently claim that these spaces can cause distress to young people and even expose them to dangerous ideologies.

With online communities perhaps more important than ever to young people, the question of what it means to grow up in online communities deserves further consideration. As a researcher in psychology who studies online communitiesMy colleagues and I have found that in addition to presenting widely publicized risks, online communities can provide young people with social and psychological support that is not available to them at home, at school or in their own homes. district.

Formative but risky

Those of us who grew up in online communities know how educational these spaces can be. As a 24 year old who has been using the internet almost every day since the age of 6, I can think of several key moments in my psychosocial development that have taken place in online communities.

Some of those moments were painful, like my cousin cheating me out of my hard-earned armor in the Runescape online role-playing game when I was 10. Others were happy, like my first DJ show for an online radio station when I was 12. . And many were weird but fascinating, like going to the 18+ video chat site Chatroulette with my friends at 13 to interact with strangers around the world.

Ultimately, observing and participating in the rich and ever-changing cultures of online communities shaped my interest in psychology research.

While the current COVID-19 stresses children face are new and hopefully temporary, caution to immerse them in online communities is justified. Online communities are changing the ground rules of human interaction, enabling unprecedented social experiences with unpredictable impacts on malleable minds.

Popular reviews, like the 2020 documentary “The social dilemma“Argued that social networking sites like Instagram distort young users’ perceptions of reality, causing them psychological distress. Of particular concern is that young people compare themselves to a constant stream of handpicked successes by their peers and algorithmically augmented selfies.

Relaxation of social norms online due to anonymity or physical distance can create conditions for some of the most notorious behaviors in online communities: bullying, fatalistic worldviews and crowd mentalities. In addition, online communities can facilitate the dissemination of disinformation and extremist ideologies, as evidenced by the rise of alt-right, a collection of weakly connected far-right groups and activists, among young users of a few anonymous online forums in the 2010s.

Support locations

These concerns have some merit, but they can underestimate the resilience and capacity of young people to adapt to new social contexts. Online communities can also offer young people develop social skills, share real interactions and discover and dissect new ideas with peers from around the world.

Currently, the evidence do not support the idea that the use of social media is generally detrimental to the well-being of young people. In fact, comparing yourself to others’ positive social media posts can even improve well-being by motivating self-improvement. Nonetheless, more research is needed to explore how specific types of social media use benefit or harm different young people.

To learn more about how young people find support online, my colleagues and I recently surveyed 334 members of 10 online mental health support forums. We presented our results to the Association for Psychological Science Annual convention 2020. Half of those surveyed were under 24 and 82% rated their mental health as terrible or bad.

Young people looking for emotional support often turn to anonymous online forums like the Reddit Anxiety Disorders.
screenshot by Benjamin Kaveladze

We have learned that these support forums provide users with valuable advice, emotional support, belonging and validation that are not available in their communities in person. We also observed that each forum’s attitude and approach to dealing with mental health issues was unique, formed from the bottom up based on users’ first-hand experiences and insights. Some users have also stated that these peer support communities can be retained by users who spread pessimistic attitudes or disinformation.

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Many young people facing personal challenges turn to online communities seek support. Some turn to text message discussion groups of close friends to express themselves and seek advice. Others prefer to privately seek help from strangers around the world anonymously support forums like reddit r / Anxiety, which often has over 1,000 members online at any one time. Online, young people can avoid the social stigma that often accompanies asking for in-person help and are not limited by geographic barriers to finding peers who share their backgrounds or perspectives.

Separate environments

Online communities play an important role in the lives of many young people, so they deserve special attention. The opportunities and risks they present are distinct from those of real-world communities, and the social challenges young people face online require unique skills to navigate effectively. Parents and mentors play a critical role in teaching young people to be responsible and respectful digital citizens.

Yet just like in real-world communities, young people also need freedom. pursue their curiosity online independently. As online communities evolve, future generations of young people will continue to lead the way in redefining the roles these spaces play in their lives.


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