Internet Health Support Groups
Coping With "Problem Posters"

by M.E. Peychers, M.A.

If you've read this far, you may be thinking that internet support groups are more trouble than they're worth. Well, I still think they're wonderful, but only if you choose your group carefully. If they don't seem like your kind of people, why not resign and try your luck elsewhere?

It is possible that people who have run into difficulties while using health groups were just unfortunate. The people you find there are much like the people you meet in real life, except most share your health concerns. Accept that every group will always be a mixed assortment, and you are never going to get along with everyone. Despite that, you should be perfectly safe on the internet if you use common sense and caution.

Here are 10 key things to watch out for:

  1. Guard your privacy. Never give out more information than you would feel comfortable revealing to a stalker (Jaishankar & Sankary 2005).
  2. Accept that you won't really get to know people you encounter on the boards unless you develop a private friendship with them by phone or email. Be nice to everyone, but befriend only those you would be happy to invite into your real life. Get to know the genuinely good people and steer clear of the rest.
  3. Stay kind, stay caring, but don't get emotionally involved if someone posts stories that seem wildly dramatic. They might not be true (Feldman 2000; Bernstein 2002). Always remember this is only the internet. It switches on and off with your computer. When you pull the plug, it's gone.
  4. Look for a group where people are open-minded and tolerant to ideas expressed by others. It's good to see people writing "maybe," "perhaps," "in my opinion," and "you might be right."
  5. If someone posts about a remedy you think is bogus, remember that sometimes a treatment works for some, but not others. No one can explain why, so don't stress out about it.
  6. If any of your messages are ignored, don't take it as a snub. It might just be that no one has anything new to offer. There is never any guarantee that readers will know the answer to any of your questions.
  7. If someone hurts your feelings, consider whether it might have been accidental. If you feel nervous about what the response might be to any of your posts, something is wrong. If you feel drained, or think you're putting in more than you receive, go take a break.

Never retaliate against anyone, even if provoked. It's not worth risking an increase in hostilities. If you do get caught up in an angry exchange, most people will have forgotten it a few days later.

If someone is consistently hostile, set your email system so their messages will go straight to the deleted folder. That way you won't have the aggravation of reading their emails, or be tempted to respond.

Most importantly, don't let yourself be distracted by the colourful characters who form the side-show elements of internet life. Remember why you joined the group, and keep your eye on the prize: good health and happiness!

Right from the start, think about what you want to get from the group. The usual approach is to read everything you can find about the condition, then post questions about your specific case. You will want to know what treatments are recommended, and if there's anything you should be avoiding. If you're lucky, you will then be able to cure your condition, or get it well under control.

Now you have the option of just dipping in occasionally to check for new developments. (If your condition is not responding, please don't lose hope. Medical science is advancing very fast and the cure you're waiting for may be the next "new development").

The other option is to stay on and share your knowledge with newer members. Some do this because they're grateful for the help they were given and want to repay that. Often it's as much because they've become friends with the group and enjoy chatting with their cyber pals each day. It is possible to make wonderful, life-long friends from such groups, as long as you are careful.

It's great to have internet friends who really get what you're going through. What is even better is taking the warmth and understanding you've found online and bringing it back into your daily life. Reach through the screen, grab a handful, and share it around your family and friends and workmates. Try to use the knowledge you've gained from the group to transform your real world into the same kind of understanding and supportive place.

Bernstein, A.J., (2002): Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry. New York, McGraw-Hill
Feldman, M.D., (2000): Munchausen by Internet: detecting factitious illness and crisis on the Internet. Southern Journal of Medicine, 93, 669-672
Jaishankar, K., Sankary, V.U., (2005) Cyber Stalking: A Global Menace in the Information Super Highway. The Online Quarterly Review of Crime, Ethics and Social Philosophy (ERCES) Vol 2, Issue 3


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