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Can Social Media and Online Communities Be Good for Us?

Virtual communities can provide social support, belongingness, and resilience.

Key points

  • Social support and being connected to others is a powerful weapon against stress, loneliness, and depression.
  • Having a support network, whether in person or online, provides a sense of belonging and increases resilience.
  • Fans who interact with others in virtual fan communities gain a sense of empowerment and well-being.
Jess Foami/Pixabay
Source: Jess Foami/Pixabay

In the wake of a national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that showed alarming statistics about the prevalence of depression, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide among adolescents, there has been increasing concern about social media and its impact on mental health.

Legislation to limit young people’s access to social media has been in the news, as well as calls to ban the popular app TikTok. Parents and researchers alike worry about social media’s impact on eating disorders, thanks to algorithms that inflate content on body image, and on self-esteem, with the preponderance of images easily altered to present perfection. Online bullying has also impacted depression risks, since the humiliation experienced by someone who is bullied is no longer limited to a few peers who happened to be in the hallway—now a video of the incident is sometimes online forever, able to be watched by thousands.

But are social media sites and the online communities that are formed there always a negative influence? There is some research that suggests that there can be positive effects.

Social Support and Happiness

It is increasingly clear that social support is critical for happiness and a sense of well-being. Social and emotional connectivity is one of the most powerful weapons against stress, loneliness, and depression. Having a support network is linked to greater resilience and even lessens the likelihood of developing symptoms of posttraumatic stress. The World Health Organization’s global health database recently published research on contextual factors associated with rates of suicide, recommending improving social connectedness as a public health strategy for reducing the suicide mortality rate.

Another long-term study agrees. For more than 80 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed the lives of hundreds of individuals, looking at what makes us happy and what gets in the way. One of the study’s main findings is that the more socially connected we are, the more likely we are to live longer and experience more happiness. Relationships help us manage stress, whereas the lack of connection does the opposite, creating chronic stress that produces higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation in the body. Loneliness has been referred to as an epidemic in modern society; we need a network of people around us to cope with the ever-present stressors all around us.

That is not often easy to accomplish in an increasingly disconnected world, however. As therapists, we educate our clients about the importance of social support and use interpersonal skill training to help individuals build their ability to connect with others. But it’s important to remember that social support is not limited to only face-to-face experiences.

Finding Support in Online Spaces

A research study of college students recently looked at whether social media could be a source of social support in times of stress. Participants were more likely to turn to social media as a social support than to parents or mental health professionals, and to prefer similar-peer communities (such as fandom communities). The anonymity of virtual communities was seen as appealing to individuals experiencing depression, although they acknowledged that social media could also be stress-inducing. The CDC survey that raised the alarm about depression rates also showed that adolescents often view their social media use as a positive, offering a support network and helping them feel more connected with their friends.

Why do people, both young and old, join online communities? Research shows that people join virtual communities for many reasons, from entertainment to searching for a place to belong. A study on why people “hang out online” found that most people join online communities looking for either friends or information, depending on the type of group. For communities based around health and wellness, social support was the most common reason to join. Studies of virtual communities for health issues ranging from weight loss to diabetes to aging found relationships between online community participation and level of social support and sense of empowerment. Similarly, for communities formed around personal interests or passions (such as fandoms), finding friends was the most cited motivation.

For physically disabled individuals, joining a virtual community may be the most effective way to reduce social isolation and connect to other people. Studies show that members value the sense of community they find in online communities. The social support received in the online group promotes a sense of well-being and was associated with positive relationships and personal growth. As one virtual community member put it, “Online we are all able bodied.”

Clearly many people are joining online communities to bolster their social relationships, from finding friends to shoring up social support.

Virtual Fan Communities

Fans often cite the feeling of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals as one of the main benefits of fandom. Whether fans come together in person or virtually, interacting with other fans can be a positive experience. A recent large-scale study found that attending live sporting events as a spectator improves well-being and life satisfaction and reduces feelings of loneliness—you don’t have to participate in the sport to reap the benefits. Whether it’s a local amateur match or a pro football game, joining other fans to root for your favorite team provides opportunities for social interaction, which increases a sense of well-being. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins foster a feeling of communal belonging, with bigger groups creating bigger effects.

The positive benefits aren’t limited to cheering for your team (or your favorite television show) in person. Both going to live sporting events and watching sporting events on TV are associated with a greater sense of happiness. That’s because being a fan creates a sense of group identity, with individuals feeling emotionally supported by the group. The social support found within a fandom, whether in person or online, reduces loneliness and helps people get through life challenges. In fact, the more highly identified a fan is with their object of enthusiasm, the stronger the social connections and the higher the sense of belongingness. Fans with higher identification experienced even greater happiness when their team (or singer or TV show) was successful and described a sense of “life being worthwhile,” which is associated with better social engagement and improved mental health.

The Power of Active Connection

Like many things we do as humans, social media and online communities can be either a positive or a negative aspect of everyday life. The Harvard study found that if people use social media in an active way to connect with other people, it is more likely to enhance well-being, but if it is used in a passive way to merely consume, it can do the opposite. Because fans typically want to share their enthusiasm with others who “get it,” fandom communities tend to encourage creativity, so these online communities often meet the criteria for offering active connection. If you're passionate about something, share your thoughts, or your art, or your humor, or your team jersey collection, or your fanfiction. Take the risk of interacting with others who appreciate some of the same things you do.

Social and emotional connectivity is one of the most powerful weapons we have against stress, loneliness, and depression, linked to greater resilience and well-being. Finding that sense of connection with the people in our everyday lives is powerful and positive; social ties gained through fandom and online communities are another route to increasing social support and creating connection. Fans reach out to other fans based on shared affinity, but the hyperconnected networks that they build end up being useful not just to cheer for a favorite team or singer or TV show but also to connect to other human beings on a very personal level.


Drouin, M., Reining, L., Flanagan, M., Carpenter, M., & Toscos, T. (2018). College students in distress: Can social media be a source of social support? College Student Journal, 52 (4), p 494–504

Keyes, H., et al (2023) Attending live sporting events predicts subjective wellbeing and reduces loneliness. Frontiers in Public Health, 10,

Obst, P., & Stafurik, J. (2010). Online we are all able bodied: Online psychological sense of community and social support found through membership of disability‐specific websites promotes well‐being for people living with a physical disability. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 20(6), 525–531.

Ridings, C. M., & Gefen, D. (2004). Virtual community attraction: Why people hang out online. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(1), JCMC10110

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