Researchers document upsides to online forums

Sweet Briar assistant professor of psychology Jessica Salvatore and Louise Pendry, a psychologist at the University of Exeter in England, have published the results of a study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. In the paper titled “Individual and social benefits of online discussion forums,” the researchers examine whether participants in online forums benefit from their interactions — and found that they, in fact, do.

Assistant professor of psychology Jessica Salvatore
Assistant professor of psychology Jessica Salvatore

According to an Exeter news release, Pendry and Salvatore discovered not only that such discussion sites have “positive links to well-being,” they also are “associated with increased community engagement offline, contrary to a common perception of them being outdated and prone to trolling.”

They note that about 10 percent of online users in the UK and 20 percent in the US still use forums — perhaps in part because, unlike Facebook and Twitter, they offer anonymity. The researchers surveyed users of online forums devoted to myriad issues and interests, which they categorized into stigmatized and non-stigmatized groups. Most seek answers to questions and support.

Both groups, Pender said, showed that the more they engaged with other users, the more willing they seemed to participate in offline activities related to the forum, such as volunteering, donating or campaigning.

“In a nutshell, the more users put into the forum, the more they get back, and the payoff for both users themselves and society at large can be significant,” Salvatore said in the news release.