Social support is essential to well-being and can have a profound impact on our ability to cope with life’s challenges. When we are facing significant events—caring for an elderly loved one, losing a close friend, going through a divorce—supportive communication such as advice and expressions of caring can have substantial, positive effects. For people suffering from physical or mental illness in particular, social support can be a critical resource. Compelling evidence exists suggesting that supportive communication can improve the quality of life among people with illness.
New communication technologies have created increased opportunities for people with illness to gain access to social support. Blogs, for example, are an avenue for individuals to share their health experiences with a potentially vast audience and, as a result, acquire social support. Millions of Americans contribute to or read blogs. Health blogs are a form of personal journal that is posted on a website and chronicles an individual’s health-related experiences. Blogs offer the opportunity for the writer to discuss his or her health setbacks and triumphs in detail. Bloggers can share their experiences in an environment that may mitigate some of the challenges with self-disclosing about illness. Unlike discussing their health experiences face-to-face, bloggers do not have to make eye contact with or witness the facial expressions of their audience.
Blogs are also novel in that they are interactive and typically contain a comments feature where readers can offer their thoughts and feedback regarding specific blog entries. Readers, who might be offline friends and family as well as previously unknown others who suffer or have suffered from a similar illness, may be uniquely positioned to provide social support. Readers have the opportunity to review an entire post or series of posts prior to posting a comment. Blog readers may be able to learn a great deal about a blogger’s experiences and develop an understanding of his or her support needs. Blog reader comments may involve forms of information and emotional support such as referrals to useful health resources or expressions of sympathy and caring. Through gaining access to social support from readers, blogging may ultimately help improve bloggers’ well-being.
Our study examined the relationship between blogging about health, social support, and well-being among 121 adults who live with and blog about their experiences with a health condition. Bloggers in the sample had been diagnosed with health conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease and cancer to HIV and Type I diabetes. The health bloggers in our study had been blogging about their health experiences for an average of almost two years. During the six weeks prior to completing our questionnaire, bloggers made an average of almost three posts per week and wrote an average of 473 words per post. Bloggers averaged approximately two comments from unique readers per blog post.
The results of our study revealed that blogging is associated with perceived social support from blog readers. The number of posts bloggers made in the six weeks prior to completing the questionnaire was associated with social support from blog readers. Bloggers who posted more frequently felt greater levels of reader support. Further, readers’ comments were consequential. Bloggers who had a greater proportion of posts with at least one reader comment perceived more support from blog readers. We also found some evidence that the support provided by blog readers was associated with bloggers’ well-being. Bloggers who perceived more support from their readers reported feeling more and a greater sense of personal growth.
Perhaps the most interesting finding from our study was that the benefits of blogging depended on bloggers’ existing relationships with their family and friends. Bloggers who lacked social support from family and friends were most likely to benefit from blogging. Social support from blog readers was associated with decreased loneliness and increased personal growth among bloggers who lacked support from family and friends. This finding suggests that the social support acquired through blogging may benefit those most in need of support. Although family and friends are a critical resource for social support, there are situations where one’s family or friends may be unable or unwilling to provide support. For example, family and friends might feel uncomfortable talking openly about someone’s health if that individual suffers from a stigmatized illness such as HIV or AIDS. However, among a blogger’s online network—which potentially includes others who suffer from the same disease or ailment—it may not be as difficult to engage in open discussion. The results of this study suggest that blogging may be a particularly valuable resource in such circumstances.
The associations among blogging, perceived support, and well-being point to the importance of communicating, in general, the hardships and pains of individuals suffering from mental and physical illness. In addition, certain dimensions of blogging in particular—the relatively anonymous, introspective writing about one’s health to an audience that might include similar others—may make bloggers feel comfortable discussing their health and encourage feedback from blog readers. We found evidence that blogging about health has the potential to invite social support from novel resources such as advice from someone who has successfully dealt with the same illness or disability. Moreover, support from others online is particularly critical when social support from one’s family and friends is lacking. Blogging appears to be a resource for individuals to marshal social resources to cope with illness and, ultimately, improve their well-being.