For the first time in history, the internet has enabled people to seek instant social support within networks of thousands of strangers.
A recent study explored the ways in which men and women seek relationship advice from both online and real-world social networks.
The results showed that men were more likely to seek help from online communities, and they also tended to use different language and focus on different relationship problems.
Self-help books probably won’t help you. Whether you want to be rich and successful, likeable and popular, or simply want to get over heartbreak, a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all book really won’t give you much of what you need. From bestsellers like The Power of Now to Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, there are over 3,000 self-help books published each year, making fortunes for their authors. The problem, though, is that 95% of these have never been tested, and 80% of therapists “assign bibliography to their patients.” Anecdotal evidence and/or small sample sizes are not rigorous science.
The fact is that a lot of self-help books are designed to be generic and vague, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Even books that are focussed on specific issues, or based upon proven and effective studies, won’t necessarily provide meaningful guidance for any individual’s specific and context-sensitive problems.
“The effectiveness of a treatment program under one set of conditions does not necessarily generalize to other conditions,” stated a 2015 study published in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy: On the Cutting Edge of Modern Developments in Psychotherapy.
What might have worked for the patients in that self-help book you read is great, but it’s not overly helpful to you. Try as we might to project and adapt our own conditions onto those we read about, we are each unique and ridiculously complicated, and our situations are nuanced in ways that even international bestsellers can’t fully capture.
Help from behind a mask
Most of us know this already. This is why, when we really need help, we still tend to turn to people we know, or we consult a professional. In the digital age, however, a whole new phenomenon has emerged — anonymous connections with people we have never met before.
As a study published recently in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships put it, “For the first time in history, individuals can leverage massive communities of complete strangers for relationship help, receiving support that is personalized, information-rich, and free from the immediate social pressures created by in-person support networks.”
While it’s popular to attack the digital world, these outlets and forums of support provide benefits no society before has enjoyed. With the sheer variety of groups, subreddits, or message boards out there, people can find help for whatever problem they have, however bizarre or esoteric it might be. With smartphones never far from our hands, we have near-constant contact with people, with whom we can safely express our deepest and truest thoughts behind the anonymity of ThrowawayUsername#4742.
For situations that come with (real or perceived) stigma, the internet offers an opportunity to connect with a sympathetic ear. Before the luddites and anti-social media voices get too loud, we’d perhaps be best to appreciate just how many people depend on their online communities as a crutch and support.
Online relationship advice
In their recent study, Entwistle et al. examined people who needed relationship advice — those who were in struggling relationships (such as needing couples’ therapy) or who were suffering from some post-breakup issues. They wanted to know how the rise in digital communities and turning online for advice impacted relationship advice. Here are three interesting findings:
- Men are more likely to turn to help online than in real life.
In real life, women are not only more likely to see problems in their relationships, but also to seek help. This is reversed when online. What’s more, the women who did turn to the internet tended to be much older than the men. So, young men were more likely to seek relationship advice from strangers in the study.
- Men are more concerned about heartache, women about finances and abuse.
In the real world, the evidence shows that the biggest problem most couples or relationships have is in their communication. The results suggested this also holds true in the online world. Other common problems included “intimacy, trust, finances and housework.”
But when it comes to the internet, men are notably more likely to talk about heartache and the personal qualities of a partner, while women will seek advice on “finances, abuse, distance, and housework.”
- Men focus on the “we,” women on the “I.“
In the words that men and women used on online relationship forums, women were much more likely to use “self-focused language (i.e., I-words)” and to focus on “overall negative emotion, anger, and anxiety words.” Inversely, men used more “we” words, focused on positives, and used fewer words associated with negative emotions. This mirrors the real world, where women are much more likely to point out partner-specific issues (e.g. “he never does the washing up!”) and men tend more to focus on problems regarding physical intimacy.
What can Reddit teach us?
The problem with this study is that it depends heavily on one data set: the r/relationships subreddit. The question is how accurate or reflective can this be? For instance, Reddit users are overwhelmingly male: roughly two-thirds men. Is it hardly surprising, then, that men are more likely to use a relationship advice subreddit? What would the data show if researchers instead investigated Mumsnet or Facebook? Likewise, is it hardly surprising that younger people tend to be seen utilizing online forums. After all, they are more like to have greater computer literacy, own a smart device, and spend more time on social media and the internet.
These caveats accepted, there are still some glimmers of important information to be found in the recent study. The biggest is just how many people use the internet for self-help: It often offers a personalized and anonymous support network that comes in handy when our real-world support networks are lacking in one way or another.
Before we lazily attack social media or the “stare-at-your-screen generation,” remember it’s not all cat memes and dance fads — it’s emotional connections and mental health support, too.