The recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, held earlier this month in Toronto, Canada, offered some disappointing research about online support groups for those in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. The research shows that attending in-person meetings may still be more effective for people working to remain sober.
“One of the most hotly debated media issues today is whether our rapidly increasing use of social networking might be supplanting face-to-face-interactions and, if so, what the social consequences might prove for us as a culture,” says Donald S. Grant, PhD, a researcher at the Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara, California, and the lead author of the research. “Our study focused on better understanding the strengths and weaknesses of online versus face-to-face sobriety support.”
For the study, Dr. Grant and a colleague enrolled 196 adults (141 women, 55 men) who attended in-person sobriety meetings (such as 12-step meetings) and also accessed online sobriety support groups. The majority of study participants were white and ranged in age from 18 to over 60; most reported having been in recovery for over a year. The participants answered questions that asked their opinions about in-person and online sobriety support systems.
In general, participants preferred in-person sobriety meetings. But the survey also asked if people switched between in-person and virtual support groups or used both and a small number did; the researchers found a small increase in use of online support groups among the group, and a corresponding drop in attending in-person meetings.
Based on the responses the researchers got, the authors say those who attended in-person meetings had a better chance of becoming and remaining sober.
Real vs. Virtual Recovery Meetings
A key factor in the greater self-reported success of the in-person meetings, according to a press release describing the study, was that people were more likely to be honest in person than online. That’s important, stated Grant in the release, because “a commitment to honesty is a bedrock principle of 12-step programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous, and a tendency toward dishonesty could jeopardize recovery.”
The study authors also found that the men and women surveyed were more likely to be high or drunk during in-person meetings than at online meetings. It may be, says Grant, that people often begin attending meetings before they’ve started their recovery process.
Even though online support groups didn’t fare as well in Grant’s survey, he says he expects the popularity of this type of meeting to grow, “which is why it’s important to help make them better,” he notes. Since publishing this research Grant says he has gotten “quite a few calls” from technology and app firms interested in potential improvements to online support groups. Simulating some aspects of a real-life meeting just can’t be done virtually, of course. “What’s really different between an in-person meeting and an online meeting is that you can’t go out for coffee afterwards with people sharing your struggle when you’re attending a meeting online,” says Grant. “A key factor in the success of in-person meetings is the sense of community.”
Down the road, though, Grant thinks there could and should be improvements to the communal feeling of online support groups: “Perhaps [there will be] a virtual reality option, for example, that makes you feel like the sobriety meeting is right in your living room.”