Positive Impacts of Belonging to Virtual Communities

Clinical Supervision Topic of the Month –

In April, we will explore if there are positive impacts of belonging to virtual communities.

I look forward to hearing supervisee perspectives on this topic. I wonder how they are impacted and how their clients are impacted by their experiences with social media, smartphones, and belonging to online communities?

In group, we will consider the research highlighting the mental health crisis first. Then, we will discuss potential solutions and consider a study conducted by GovLabs, a project of the Burnes Center for Social Change at Northeastern University.
(Read more below about these organizations).

We Must Begin by Considering the Indisputably Negative Impacts of Social Media and Smart Phones

There is an important national conversation right now about the negative impacts of social media and smartphone use on the mental health of youth and adults. There are critical concerns about Tik-Tok, algorithms that target users in harmful ways, over exposure to unsafe information and people, AI, and the spread of misinformation. Parents and researchers are concerned about the alarming statistics of increases in depression, suicide risk, cyber bullying, and eating disorders amongst young people.

Undoubtedly, these mental health concerns warrant critical attention and  real solutions. The statistics of the negative impact of technology/social media leave me worried that we will never be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Solutions to Negative Impacts of Smartphones & Social Media?

I encourage you enter into the conversation about solutions for these mental health crises in our country by listening to these two podcast episodes on Hidden Brain. In each of these episodes, each guest shares solutions to these immense challenges.

  1. U.S. Surgeon Murthy talks about a prescription for lonliness
  2. Psychologist and researcher Jonathan Haidt talks about the impact of smartphones on mental health of youth.

I wonder if there are additional positive solutions that could serve as  a counter-weight to ameliorate the negative impacts of the technology that is here to stay?

My Experience Belonging to Virtual Learning Communities

I am an active member of an online learning community and several Facebook groups focused on learning jazz piano. This creative outlet, what I have learned about jazz piano, and the interpersonal connections I have made in this online learning community have been magical.

As a jazz piano enthusiast, I’ve experienced firsthand the profound impact of these virtual spaces on mental health and personal growth.

I have met people from all over the world in these groups. In my main learning community, there are about 15,000 members. I have never experienced such a supportive, kind, generous community of learners in my life. It has been a remarkably positive experience, connecting me to and allowing me to build friendships with people from around the globe. I have places and people to visit when I travel to new cities. Local piano groups are forming in cities across the world for online participants to meet and play piano together in person.

I am guessing the primary age-group of participants of my jazz piano online community is between age 50 – 80 years old. I recognize that the issues that people my age face as it relates to technology use are different than the issues youth and young adults face.

But my positive experience makes me wonder if there something positive to come from online engagement for youth and older adults?

Because my experience belonging to an online jazz piano learning community has been powerful and positive, I looked to see if there is any research that suggests positive effects of belonging to an online community.

I was heartened to find several articles and research studies reflecting some promise in this area.

Research on Positive Impacts of Belonging to Online/Virtual Communities

GovLabs & The Burnes Center for Social Change

In their project called The Power of Virtual Communities,” GovLabs examined the role online communities – specifically, Facebook groups – play in helping people build meaningful communities that they often could not form in in-person.

The research findings indicate:

  • Membership in online communities confers a strong sense of community
  • In many cases online groups attract members and leaders who are marginalized and who use the platform to build new kinds of communities difficult to form otherwise.
  • New kinds of community leaders have emerged in these groups with unique skills in moderating often divisive dialogues, sometimes among millions of members.
  • Most groups are run as a labor of love; many leaders are neither trained nor paid and the rules that govern their internal operations are often uncodified

Their research explored what is required for online groups to become meaningful communities. They interviewed 50 online community leaders, 26 community experts, reviewed 150 academic articles, reviewed 29 research documents internal to Facebook, and interviewed 15,000 participants currently in online and in-person communities.

Read their findings in their 2021 final report here:
The Power of Virtual Communities.

The Burnes Center employs action research to design and implement practical solutions to society’s hardest problems. They work to test, improve, and scale real-world solutions across government institutions and community individuals, specially on youth, LGBTQ+ people & many marginalized communities.  They develop innovative, participatory, and equitable approaches to solving public problems using new technology.

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