Heidi Hammond examines how the concept of social interest and empathy in online social support groups can be potentially developed in a virtual environment. In examining the applicalation of social interest and empathy to online support groups, Hammond first outlines the prevalence of Internet usage and communication, citing a 2014 Pew Research Center examination of Internet users which stated that 87% of people in the United States use the Internet, and that 90% of these users consider the Internet a “good thing for them personally” (Hammond, 2015). She further supports her research by noting that 67% of people reported that “online communication with family and friends has generally strengthened those relationships” (Hammond, 2015). This provides a basic understanding of initial public perceptions of online communication, and establishes the framework for Hammond’s later observations of social interest and empathy online.
Hammond explains that empathy is “a process of both inferring thoughts and feelings and then responding sensitively to another person’s experience.” Again citing the Pew Research Center, Hammond notes that 12% of Internet users had participated in some form of online discussion dedicated to personal issues or health problems. She also notes that this percentage may not include users who visit these sites, but choose not to participate. Hammond notes that a benefit of online support groups is the ability to connect groups that may face rare conditions or find themselves in situations that are not easily understood or could be stigmatized by a broader culture. She suggests that online support groups can help “normalize experiences and support the exchange of valuable information.” A potential benefit recognized by Hammond is that online support groups allow participants to remain anonymous, which could help them feel less vulnerable.
In an attempt to identify the ability to empathize online, Hammond suggests that when a person interacts through text the user may internalize another’s voice by reading another person’s words in their own voice. The online medium also encourages a user to fill in gaps using their imagination, which develops a mix of reality and fantasy. These processes can enhance empathy and bonding which are critical elements in an effective support group.
Hammond goes on to suggest that there are potential benefits of establishing an online community structure that also provides education and online communication. Hammond also notes that various authors have discussed the use of online support groups to support existing therapeutic, health-related, or training services. Hammond concludes that the continual expansion of the Internet and the increasing ways in which it connects, affects, and shapes lives suggests that discussing the role of social interest in virtual environments is highly important.
Hammond, H. (2015). Social Interest, Empathy, and Online Support Groups. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 71(2), 174-185.