Virtual AA and 12-Step Meetings: 4 Benefits, 4 Downsides
Quitting alcohol is a common New Year's resolution—could virtual 12-step help?
Posted Jan 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
By: Lee Holley, LMSW, LCDC, PRSS and Breslyn McCrory, BA
Alcohol consumption and sales in America skyrocketed in 2020. With many restaurants and bars closed or their access reduced because of pandemic precautions, Americans have taken to imbibing at home. That's helped sales of beer, wine, spirits, and related products at discount and grocery stores.
Social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and quarantine measures, while necessary public health strategies for virus containment, have likely contributed to many Americans increasing their alcohol consumption to cope with the resulting boredom, disruption to routines, and distress. While most will find that they can stop or moderate on their own, others will have developed an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or Substance Use Disorder (SUD) during 2020.
There are many paths to recovery from alcohol and SUDs, and one that has been traveled by many and is associated with positive long-term outcomes is involvement in 12-Step and mutual/self-help groups. Such groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and a number of others (e.g., Smart Recovery and Refuge Recovery) have served as the primary source of behavior change for many, as adjuncts to formal treatment, or as a form of continuing care and community support following treatment.
Recovery organizations like AA often place great emphasis on in-person meetings and the fellowship (i.e., building friendships, socializing before and after meetings, getting to know one another) before and after meetings. The transition to virtual formats, such as Zoom, has exploded since May 2020, and will likely continue to be an important medium through which many individuals seek to address their substance use disorders.
We interviewed two dozen members of AA and asked about their experiences with virtual (i.e., Zoom) meetings. While the general consensus was that members are grateful that Zoom meetings are available in absence of in-person meetings, many members expressed the desire to return to in-person meetings and articulated difficulties they have noticed with the new meeting format.
- Convenience: Dorothy* said, “one advantage [of virtual meetings] is that it’s easier to access meetings from anywhere.” Regardless of where you are, as long as you have internet access you can log into an AA meeting. Whether you are using a laptop or a smartphone, it only takes a few minutes to find and log into a meeting.
- Increased meeting availability: No longer bound by the need to physically travel, members started exploring meetings in different towns, states, and countries. For those who had moved during their sobriety journey, many were elated to be able to return to their old, familiar AA meetings in their hometowns via the internet. This increase in availability also translates to increased meeting options. Members who have an affinity to certain types of meetings, such as Young People’s meetings, book studies, and agnostic meetings, have greater access to them.
- An influx of newcomers: Gabby commented, “it’s cool how many new women and newcomers we’ve gotten because Zoom meetings are more accessible than going in person for a lot of people” and “we’ve gotten a lot of newcomers because it seems like online there is less pressure.” Many AAs find that their sobriety is strengthened by helping other alcoholics, so this flood of new or prospective AA members is a mutually beneficial event.
- Lack of physical barriers: Angelica noted that some “newcomers” may have transportation difficulties or barriers, such as an unreliable vehicle, insufficient public transportation, an inability to drive due to a DUI, or a lack of gas money. These issues are irrelevant if one can find free Wi-Fi. Additionally, she pointed out that individuals who cannot access or afford childcare can still attend Zoom AA meetings while taking care of their kids at home.
- Internet and app issues: Jami endorsed difficulty “frustration [with] having to adapt to new technology” and said that it can be “especially [challenging] when your connection cuts off or is spotty.” What may be a minor annoyance to one who is tech-savvy might be a major barrier to those who are not well-versed with computers, smartphones, and the internet.
- Increased distractions: It is much easier to get distracted during virtual meetings than it is at in-person meetings. Taylor admitted to “checking my email, or doing other things on the computer or chores around the house while the meeting is going on.” He stated, "multitasking detaches me from the meeting and the members in the group, and while I can check off the box that I had been to a meeting, it is not as effective.”
- Reduced quality of social components: Paul reported, “the inability to fellowship after a meeting with dinner or coffee seems to be missing from Zoom AA, which was integral to my early recovery. Although some socialization takes place before and after meetings begin, members stated that having to be in a video chat of 20+ people removed the opportunity for friendly, one-on-one exchanges.
- Inaccurate meeting information: Since AA is run almost exclusively on a volunteer basis and there is no leadership structure, members have had to cobble together information to send to their local hubs, regarding which meetings have moved online and what the entry codes are. Some meetings had to change their entry codes after getting “Zoombombed” which led to further difficulty keeping track of information.
Best Ways to Utilize Virtual (Zoom) AA Meetings
- Download the official Alcoholics Anonymoys World Services, Inc. Meeting Guide application via the iOS app or the Google Play app.
- After weighing privacy concerns, consider sharing your phone number in the chatbox and/or taking down the numbers of individuals with whom you are interested in talking.
- Attend three to five different meetings and explore the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” before deciding whether AA is a good fit for you.
- When possible, turn your camera or webcam on so that you're able to immerse yourself fully in the experience (as opposed to passively listening to meetings, while you're engaged in a different activity).
- Avoid multitasking during meetings on your computer or smartphone, despite how tempting it may be to browse social media, shop, or check email while you're in a virtual meeting.
- Log into meetings 10 minutes early and stay 10 minutes after to speak with more experienced AA members on an informal basis.
The overwhelming and rapid transition to virtual 12-step formats has proved to be a reliable means for individuals to stay connected and stay sober. Virtual meetings may prove to be a mainstay in recovery programs even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Hybrid meetings are becoming more common, so people can access the same meeting both in-person or virtually. Individuals who are tech-fluent may be uniquely qualified to be of service to their fellows in AA and related 12-step programs.
About the Authors
Lee Holley, LMSW, LCDC, PRSS, is an Addictions Counselor at Menninger’s Pathfinder community reintegration program. He provides addiction counseling, recovery coaching, and spearheads the program’s Chemical Dependency group curriculum.
Breslyn McCrory, BA, is a Resident Advisor at Pathfinder and is currently pursuing her MSW at University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work.
*In accordance with AA’s Traditions, the anonymity of those we interviewed is respected and protected by using first names only. Additionally, the anonymous guests speak for themselves only, and not AA at large. Alcoholics Anonymous is not affiliated with Zoom Video Communications, Inc. or any other particular virtual communication platform. For the purposes of this article, we refer to virtual AA meetings as being “Zoom meetings,” as that was the most frequent platform referenced.