John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace

A Comparison of Online, E-Mail, and In-Person Self-Help Groups
Using Adult Children of Alcoholics as a Model

Wende Phillips - January 1996

Independent Study Project - Rider University Psychology Department
John Suler, Ph.D., Faculty Advisor


This paper investigates how Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) self-help groups function in-person, online and through e-mail. It compares their similarities, differences, advantages and disadvantages. It also examines the features of one of the online services used during this study. All self-help groups were joined using participant-observer methodology. The basic meeting formats of the groups were reviewed, process notes were kept for the chat groups and a daily journal was kept. Logs of chat group meetings were kept as well as all e-mail correspondence. The role of feedback was examined with the online ACOA self-help chat group and e-mail group; and compared to the in-person ACOA self-help groups. Also, the purpose of holding ACOA self-help groups online and in-person for the future were contemplated. While conducting this research, the investigator adhered to principles of informed consent and the protection of confidentiality.

In general, groups are known for their ability to generate ideas through brainstorming. The various individuals of the group bring with them multiple ideas for problem-solving, and help to stimulate the formation of further ideas (Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly, 1994). Self-help groups have been defined as "being composed of members who share a common condition, situation, heritage, symptom, or experience; they are self-governing and self-regulating; they emphasize self-reliance and generally offer a face-to-face or phone-to-phone fellowship network, available without charge; they tend to be self-supporting rather than dependent on external funding" (Lieberman, 1990). Members of self-help groups (SHGs) share their ideas with the other group members on ways that they used to help themselves through difficult situations. This process aids the other members in working through their similar situations. Recent research, and many health professionals who work with individuals who have drug and/or alcohol abuse problems, or survivors of abuse, state that SHGs are an integral part of the individual's recovery process (Finn and Lavitt, 1994; and Johnson and Phelps, 1991). There are literally thousands of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) self-help groups worldwide, serving an estimated 9 to 12 million adult Americans affected by alcoholism (Collet, 1990; and Lieberman, 1990).

By joining and participating in SHGs, individuals observe the behaviors of the other members of the group and learn the ideology of the group (Lieberman, 1990; Suler, 1984; and Yalom, 1995). Individuals then incorporate the principles of the group's ideology into their own thinking and interactions with others in an effort to change their behavior and be accepted by the group (Lieberman, 1990; Suler, 1984; and Yalom, 1995). By adapting to the ideology of the group, individuals develop a strong sense of commitment and belonging to the group. Members begin to feel a sense of relief when they attend these meetings, because they no longer feel alone in their personal battles to overcome their problems (Collet, 1990; Finn and Lavitt, 1994; and Lieberman, 1990). This "we-ness" results in one feeling accepted by the group (Lieberman, 1990) and can be a wonderful, and powerful, sensation. Feeling part of a group that can identify with one's issues creates cohesion among the group members and facilities self-disclosure.

Yalom (1995) refers to feeling part of a group of individuals who understand and share one's problems as "universality." Universality appears in most, if not all, SHGs and psychotherapy groups, including AA, Al-Anon and ACOA groups; in-person and online. Since these SHGs are usually ongoing, the individuals tend to be at different stages of recovery and the newer members see the older members of the group making improvements in their behavior. Seeing another member with a similar problem improve, helps to instill hope and inspiration in the other members of the group (Yalom, 1995).

Some members of SHGs have stated that they feel the most important aspect of the group experience is helping others, getting support and encouragement, experiencing their problems as similar to the problem of others, and the experience of consensual validation (Lieberman, 1990; and Roberts, Luke, Rappaport, Seidman, Toro, and Reischl, 1991). Additionally, it has been found that when SHGs are led by peers, there is a stronger level of group cohesion, expressiveness and self-discovery among the members (Meissen, Gleason, and Embree, 1991). Research also suggests that alcoholics who attend AA meetings in addition to another treatment program have a more favorable prognosis than alcoholics who only attend AA meetings (Lieberman, 1990).

Yalom (1995) says that "it is the relationship that heals." Thus, it is imparative that the relationships between the therapist (group leader) and the members of the group, as well as the member-member relationships, be supportive of self-disclosure in order to facilitate cohesion and a sense of security. In an effort to help individuals feel secure in the group, AA, Al-Anon and ACOA SHGs clearly state their ideology, belief and value systems. Clearly stating their ideology helps individuals identify a group with a similar belief system as the individual, which aids in building cohesion among the members of the group (Suler, 1984; and Yalom, 1995).

In the in-person Al-Anon and ACOA groups, the role of feedback, cross-talk and advice giving are usually not permitted during the group session. If group members wish to discuss matters with each other, they do so after the meeting. Many members of the ACOA groups which I attended would chat in the parking lot after a meeting, go to a diner for coffee or call each other on the telephone between meetings in an effort to further develop relationships with one another. Through building relationships with other members of the group, members of SHGs and psychotherapy groups help each other learn to trust themselves and each other, build healthy relationships, improve one's self-esteem, share information and ideas, discuss taboo subjects, and overcome alienation and isolation by developing social networks (Finn and Lavitt, 1994).

In psychotherapy groups feedback is a key factor in identifying one's deviant behaviors, learn how to face these deviant behaviors and resolve them in a healthy manner (Morran and Stockton, 1991; Morran, Robinson and Stockton, 1985; and Yalom, 1995). The member who self-discloses the perceived deviant behavior is taking a risk (i.e. will telling the group "this" about me make me an outcast?). The other members of these groups often struggle with the fear of taking a risk by giving feedback to the person who disclosed; or play it safe and be accepted by the group (Lieberman, 1990).

While working in a psychotherapy group, members tend to recreate their family experience by creating a "social microcosm" (Lieberman, 1990; and Yalom, 1995). Recreating one's family experiences with the group and working through deviant behavior patterns is key to the group psychotherapy process (Finn and Lavitt, 1994; and Yalom, 1995). Another key factor to the psychotherapy group is the development of healthy relationships with other group members through the process of mutual sharing, empathy and support (Finn and Lavitt, 1994; and Yalom, 1995). But, in order to create healthy relationships, one must be able to give another person not only positive, but also corrective and negative feedback. This can and is anxiety provoking for both the individual giving and the individual receiving the feedback (Morran, Robinson, and Stockton, 1985; Morran and Stockton, 1991; and Robinson and Hardt, 1992).

Attending in-person meetings can be difficult, especially the first meeting. When I attended my first meeting I had many reservations; such as, betraying my family, and putting them and myself in "this type of category." It was almost enough to keep me from going to the meeting. Johnson and Phelps (1991) stated that "attendance of the first meeting is the major hurdle; meeting a group of strangers and potentially discussing a deep secret is a challenging step." For this reason, I believe attending meetings online can be a very good first step for those individuals who have reservations and/or anxiety over attending a SHG meeting. Meeting online can allow a person to get comfortable with the basic format of the meeting, help them to ease into the recovery process, and reach individuals that would normally not attend a meeting because of their anxiety.

AA, Al-Anon and ACOA groups can be categorized into four types of SHG meetings: open, closed, discussion and speaker meetings. Many of these groups incorporate into their format the 12 Step process of recovery and may hold a Step meeting once a month, or once a week. And because people have special needs and interests, one can find almost any kind of AA, Al-Anon, or ACOA group meeting to meet their needs, such as: gay or lesbian ACOA groups, non-smoking AA groups, etc. (Johnson and Phelps, 1991). This has led SHGs like AA, Al-Anon, ACOA, and survivors of sexual abuse to appear online in the virtual communities (Finn and Lavitt, 1994).

Studying Groups Online

In Roberts et al. (1991) participant-observer study, the authors noted that using the pencil-and-paper method to record information in meetings was a drawback in collecting data. Thus, a major advantage of doing a participant-observer study online is that one can actively engage in the meetings, and not be hindered by recording information because the computer has the capability of logging the text/conversation. However, one limitation is that some online software cannot log the private messages that can be sent between group members - which may or may not be a drawback since during an in-person meeting, this would be equivalent to two members whispering to each other (a private conversation).

Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly's (1994) research suggested that when groups work online, anonymity and idea generation is increased with increasing group size. They suggest that by being online and working in a larger group, individuals have a greater feeling of anonymity, feel less inhibited and more free to express their ideas. They also have a tendency to produce more unique ideas. With this in mind, it is easy to see why many people may feel much more comfortable communicating with each other via the computer, especially in large groups. This may be why one of the email list groups which I participated in was so successful, because of its large size. Any it may also be why another email list group I participated in was not successful, because of its smaller size. The success of these two groups was determined by the amount of correspondence between the group members.

In 1987 John Perry Barlow, a song-writer for the Greatful Dead, wanted to know more about "Deadheads" and was told about a "place" called the WELL (the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) where many of the Deadheads meet when not following the Greatful Dead around on tour. Barlow (1995) writes, "Inside the WELL were Deadheads in 'community.' There were thousands of them there, gossiping, complaining, comforting and harassing each other, bartering, engaging in religion, beginning and ending love affairs, praying for one another's sick kids. There was, it seemed, everything one might find going on in a small town, save dragging Main Street and making out on the back roads."

Can these same feelings be achieved online? Can one feel that they belong to a group online, and can an online group help an individual set goals and make changes in their lives? In-person AA, Al-Anon and ACOA meetings vary to some degree, but their ideologies and formats are all basically the same. And so it appears with the online meetings. As Yalom (1995) stated, "groups with similar therapeutic goals, use similar therapeutic factors."

The purpose of this paper is to examine the advantages, disadvantages, similarities and differences of in-person ACOA SHGs, online ACOA SHGs, and ACOA e-mail lists. This project was a follow-up to an earlier study in which I examined the group processes of in-person ACOA groups. Some of the questions to be addressed in this current study are:

  • What are some of the similarities and differences of in-person and online ACOA SHGs?
  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of in-person and online ACOA SHGs?
  • How might one benefit from an e-mail ACOA SHG?
  • What "anonymity" issues might these three ACOA groups incur?
  • Are members satisfied working with online groups?
  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of giving feedback when working with groups online?

Method of this Study

I participated in four online groups. The first was a weekly ACOA chat group meeting which existed on an online service. A chat group is similar to an in-person conversation among a group of people, except that people converse with each other by typing messages via their computer connections. The second group was an ACOA email list on this same online service. On an email list, people send email messages to a central computer that then distributes the message to everyone on the list, who then read the messages at their leisure. I began my participation and correspondence with these groups in May 1995. Through the online service ACOA e-mail list, I learned of an Internet ACOA email list which I joined in July 1995. The online service also had a second ACOA chat group meeting listed, which was a Step meeting. When I tried to attend one of the meetings, I found that the members had disbanded. After attending several of the online service ACOA SHG meetings, and corresponding on both ACOA e-mail list groups, I created my own ACOA SHG (discussion meeting) in mid-July 1995. All meetings and list groups were observed through the end of August 1995.

Therefore, there are four distinct groups I will be discussing in this paper:

  • the online service's ACOA chat group
  • the online service's ACOA email list
  • the internet ACOA email list
  • the ACOA chat group that I created on the online service
Attendance and participation at the online meetings was hard to track because members have the ability to use several different screen names. Although many members appeared to use only one screen name, their attendance and participation seemed to fluctuate, not showing up to meetings or make posts to the lists for several days, or even weeks. But, their attendance and participation seemed to exceed that of "live" groups. Some of the members attend several SHG meetings online and made postings to the e-mail lists; similar to the "live" groups. The members of these groups appear to be very close to each other; also similar to the "live" groups I have attended. I acted as a participant-observer in all groups. In this type of study, I was able to observe the differences and similarities of the groups, and my reactions to the individuals in these groups. I was also able to observe the differences and similarities in the ways the group members reacted to, and interacted with, each other as well as with me.

After attending each meeting, I immediately wrote notes about what I observed in the groups. In these notes I attempted to keep an objective opinion and described how I interpreted the meetings. In keeping with the anonymity policy of AA, Al-Anon and ACOA, and out of respect for the individuals who attended these meeting, the names of individuals have been changed. Additionally, a daily journal was kept to summarize how these events personally impacted me throughout the project.

The Groups

The ACOA chat group on the online service met once each week for one hour. The groups which meet in this conference room have a schedule which indicates the date and time each group regularly reserves to use the room. The group leader for the meeting usually arrives to the room at the beginning of the hour, welcomes each of the members by their screen name making the statement "XXX, Welcome to the Adult Children of Alcoholics Self-Help Group." Attendance is not required, and members come in and out of the room as they please; so the number of individuals attending the meeting varied throughout the meeting, and on a week-to-week basis. At the end of the hour, the group leader "reads" the Serenity Prayer and most of the members answer by "saying/typing" "Amen," and then say their goodbyes (usually lots of hugging), or stay for the next meeting.

Since the number of members attending the meetings fluctuated at each meeting, and because of the uncertainty of gender identities, it was impossible to accurately identify the number of men and women in attendance. Likewise, it was impossible to identify the ages of individuals, or any other identifiable information, such as race, income, attractiveness, voice tone, and other nonverbal behaviors (Finn and Lavitt, 1994). During the conversations, some people stated that they were married, single or divorced. Some stated that they have children. Some stated that they worked in health care, with computers, were secretaries, college students, and directors, etc.; while others did not disclose any identifying information. Thus, communicating via computer seems to put individuals at more of an equality than other modes of communication. This may be one reason individuals can communicate and interact at a more personal level without as much perceived risk involved (Finn and Lavitt, 1994; and Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly, 1994).

The members of this ACOA chat group seemed to attempt to follow the guidelines set by Al- Anon/ACOA. This group was labeled a "discussion" group, and they discussed various issues related to the characteristics of ACOA and alcoholism, and any other issues that were relevant to the members present. The members did not go through the normal opening routine as the in-person groups I previously attended. The leader of the group would usually wait a few minutes to allow members time to get to the room, greeting them at the door, and then officially start the meeting by "reading" the daily affirmation from Rokelle Lerner's book, Daily Affirmation's for ACOAs. Then the leader would open the floor to those present to discuss their reactions to the affirmation, or to any other issue they may feel the need to discuss with the group.

Members of the online service email list corresponded on a twice a month basis and "as needed." During my partipation on the list, three members took turns coordinating the list. Topics relating to ACOA issues are sent out for discussion twice a month. The first topic is sent out around the first of the month, and the second topic is sent out around the fifteenth of the month. The member posting the topics for the month usually picks a topic, writes how they feel on the topic and asks that other members respond with their feelings about the topic and what the originator had to say. The member making the original post sends this message to everyone on the list. Members that choose to respond may reply to the individual or the entire list.

This group tends to be most active with correspondence around the first and fifteenth of the month when the postings come out. Occasionally, when a member has an issue they feel a need to discuss with the group (not related to the bi-monthly topic), they will make a posting. Members do this when they are recruiting feedback and when they just need "to talk and have the others listen." Members of this group also participated in the online service's chat group. It was interesting to correspond with these individuals having "been in a meeting with them." This group was large enough to have stimulating conversation with, yet not too large that you got lost in the shuffle.

The Internet e-mail group is much larger and more active than the online service e-mail group. The members of this group post correspondence much more frequently. The Internet e-mail group seems to be much more "organized" than the online service's e-mail list. This group has weekly topics that are posted at the beginning of the month. The Internet e-mail groups was very stimulating and I enjoyed corresponding with the individuals on this list. But for me it was easier to make intimate relationships on the online service's e-mail list. One reason may have been because I could correspond with the individuals on the online service's list directly, and on the Internet e-mail list I had to go through the list organizers.

The ACOA SHG which I organized on the online service was interesting. The first night I held a meeting, I created a room named "ACOA Discussion" and wanted to see how many people would stop by to "chat" about ACOA issues. Two people stopped in the room, but one was looking for an Al-Anon meeting and left. The other person stayed and we had a very interesting discussion. The following week, I invited the two people back for the same night and time, and the one individual did return for another meeting. Several other people came into the room that night to "chat." We had a very good meeting, and a very intense discussion about ACOA and related issues. A few days after the meeting, I invited these individuals back for another meeting, same day and time. Several people responded that they enjoyed the meeting and would try to come again. But, when the meeting night arrived, no one came to the meeting.

This could have happened for several reasons. The previous meeting was very intense and a lot of sensitive issues were discussed. Members could have needed "a break" from the issues, and were afraid that they would be discussed again. Members could be avoiding these issues and feel that they are not ready to discuss them. The members could have been busy, had to work late, or take care of other responsibilities. This last possibility is one that I am curious about. I held this meeting on the same day and time as the other ACOA Step meeting that disbanded. It is possible that this day and time was just a bad time for people to make a meeting. Two of the individuals that responded that they had enjoyed the meeting and would try to make it, said that they had had to work late. One member is on the opposite coast and the meeting is three hours earlier there. Time differences are an important consideration when working online.

Features of Being Online

One feature of online meetings that is absent from in-person meetings is that from time-to-time members loose their network connection and get "bumped" off the system. This happened to me on several occasions and can be very frustrating. Getting bumped can happen at the most inopportune times.

Another feature of being online is anonymity. Members can keep their identity "secret" until they are ready to disclose their true identity (see "Anonymity" section for more information on this topic). Being able to remain anonymous is attractive to some individuals, therefore some people who would never step foot in an in-person meeting will attend an online meeting. During online meetings, members can "lurk" during their first few meetings like in-person meetings (observing without participating), but without being seen.

Two notable features of online chat groups are the ability to log (record) conversations and to send private messages to other members. Both conversations among the whole group and one's private conversations can be recorded. A drawback, however, is that some online software saves private conversations in a separate file from the group conversations. This makes it difficult to recall when private messages were sent in relation to the conversation in the chat log.

When hosting a chat group online, the group leader can sit in as a participant, communicate with others and advise the group members; all while the computer logs the entire meeting. The group leader can use this log to review prior to the next meeting. And if a group leader is training a "new leader," the two can correspond privately by sending private messages. After a meeting, the "trainee" and group leader can review the chat log and private messages, advising on counseling techniques, etc. Likewise, members of the group can communicate with each other via private messages without the leader or other members knowing. In actuality, it is feasible for all of the members of the group to communicate with each other without any of the others knowing about the conversations, unless they tell each other of this activity.

Another feature of many chat groups is the software's ability to notify you when a person enters the room. This allows the group leader, or anyone else, to "greet" people as they come in the door. Also, while in the room, some online software has a feature that counts the number of people in the room and displays the screen names of these individuals. This number changes as the members come in and out of the room. Some software, however, does not notify you when a member leaves the room. In this case, the only way one knows when a person leaves the room is the number indicating the number of persons in the room decreases by one and the person's screen name disappears, unless the person leaving the room says "goodbye" to the group. It is considered good Netiquette to say goodbye to the other members of the room, to let them know that you are leaving. Many people are just curious and stop by rooms to see what they are about, but they usually indicate so and say "goodbye." There are some that come in, say nothing and leave without a word.

Online service software may also include the ability to view a member's biographical information that they have previously provided to the service. Members have the option of filling out a form that other members can then access to know more about the person. When completing this form, members may put down as little or as much information as they wish. And it is up to the individual whether or not to complete the form with accurate biographical information, or to create a fictitious profile of themselves.


When communicating online with others, it is suggested to act as you would if you were communicating in a "face-to-face" (FTF) conversation, take personal responsibility for the values that matter to you most when interacting on the Internet, allow our actions to speak louder than our "words," and be tolerant of others and their individual values (Peters, 1994). Use the same common courtesy as you would if talking with a friend, because you are still speaking with another human being. The following is an excerpt from Virginia Shea's book Netiquette:

"Rule 1: Remember the human. Sometimes people online act like people driving behind the wheel of a care - rude! They curse, use obscene gestures and behave like savages, they think this behavior is acceptable on the net. Remember the Prime Directive of Netiquette: Those are real people out there, Would you say it to the person's face?"

"Rule 2: Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life. Maybe its because people forget that there is a human on the other end of the computer line, they think that there is a lower standard of ethics or personal behavior that is acceptable in cyberspace. Standards of behavior may be different in some areas of cyberspace, but they are not lower than in real life. Be ethical, breaking the law is bad Netiquette, act within the laws of society and cyberspace."

"Rule 3: Know where you are in cyberspace. Netiquette varies from domain to domain. When you go someplace new, lurk awhile before you post a message."

"Rule 4: Respect other people's time and bandwidth. People are busy and its your responsibility to ensure the time they spend reading your postings and e-mail is not a waste of time. Keep it short, and before forwarding someone a copy, ask yourself if they really need to know."

"Rule 5: Make yourself look good online. Take advantage of your anonymity. You won't be judged by the color of your skin, eyes or hair, your weight, your age, or your clothing. But, you will be judged by the quality of your writing. So check your spelling and, grammar and know what your talking about. Don't post flame-bait (offensive language, or be confrontational for the sake of confrontation, it is preferable to use amusing euphemisms like "effing" and "sugar", or "s***")."

"Rule 6: Share expert knowledge. The Internet was founded and grew because scientists wanted to share information. Gradually, the rest of us got in on the act. Sharing your knowledge is fun. Its a long-time net tradition and it makes the world a better place."

"Rule 7: Help keep flame wars under control. Flaming is a longstanding tradition and Netiquette never messes with tradition. But Netiquette does forbid the perpetuation of flame wars."

"Rule 8: Respect other people's privacy. You'd never dream of going through your colleagues' desk drawers, so naturally you wouldn't read their e-mail either. Unfortunately a lot of people would - respect other people's privacy."

"Rule 9: Don't abuse your power. Knowing more than others, or having more power than they do, does not give you the right to take advantage of them. Sysadmins should never read private e-mail."

"Rule 10: Be forgiving of other people's mistakes. Even if you feel strongly about it, think twice before reacting. Having good manners doesn't give you the license to correct everyone else. If you do decide to inform someone of a mistake, point it out politely, and preferably by private e-mail rather than in public. Just as it is a law of nature that spelling flames always contain spelling errors, notes pointing out Netiquette violations are often examples of poor Netiquette."

Another example of good "Netiquette" comes from the editor of Time magazine (Wolff, 1994). The magazine ran a cover photo of O.J. Simpson that had been darkened, and received a slew of negative postings on one of the newsgroups. Jim Gaines, the managing editor, responded to the comments making his own post to the newsgroup. Gaines stated he did so for two reasons: it reached the community faster than if he waited for the next issue to be published, and he was concerned about being quoted accurately. Gaines's post also addressed the issue of who owns the words posted in electronic forums, and how accountable are the people are behind them? Some of the online services issue "You Own Your Own Words" disclaimers. But good netiquette states that users should take responsibility both for what they write and for any online material that they disseminate elsewhere.

Acronyms and Symbols for Communication

E-mail and chat groups appear to be evolving rapidly, and many of the users have developed and/or use various symbols, acronyms and abbreviations in an effort to deepen their communication, quicken the pace of communication to resemble the pace of "speaking," and in an effort to display more expression and emotion in their typed words. And since it usually takes individuals more time to type what they want to say than it does to speak, they have developed (and continue to create) a form of short-hand to quicken the pace of communicating online. Some common acronyms are BRB (be right back), LOL (laughing out loud), BTW (by the way), and FTF (face to face).

Individuals have also developed symbols to strengthen the power of thier words. It appears that these symbols are an attempt to convey nonverbal communication (i.e. "{{ZZZ}}, I'm really sorry to hear about your loss," to indicate giving a hug to ZZZ; or "YYY, I'm really happy to hear about your promotion, :)" to indicate happiness, or for grin. Also, members of chat groups usually address the member they are directing a comment or question to by typing the member's screen name at the beginning of the comment (i.e. "XXX, why do you think that?"). Also, in a live conversation one person would generally look in the direction of the person they are speaking to, but online one needs to draw the person's attention by "saying/typing" their screen name. This is also seen as proper netiquette, or common courtesy, while holding a conversation online.

It appears that members of these groups, and individuals online all over the world, have found ways to overcome the barriers and limitations of being online by using these symbols, abbreviations and acronyms. When another member sends me a hug, I get a warm feeling, a smile comes to my face and I feel good. Are there limitations anymore of being online? In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, if there really are any drawbacks or limitations. For me, it is easier and much more efficient to communicate with others online. In fact, I communicate more online than I do on the telephone or through "snail-mail" (what the U.S. Postal service is referred to online). Others may criticize that communicating via the Internet or an online service is a regression in human behavior; or theorize that some people fantisize about their computer as a human being, sex object, or phallic symbol (Holland, 1995). I say that my computer is just that, a computer. And using my computer to communicate online is an effective tool to help me work and communicate more efficiently. Besides all this, communicating online for me is also much more fun. More like progress, not regress.

Advantages of ACOA Online Chat and E-mail Groups

There are many advantages of individuals using the online chat session and e-mail sessions over attending in-person meetings. Some of these include, but are not limited to: physical space and distance are not a barrier, transportation is not an issue, time is not an issue, availability of group meetings is not an issue, care-taking responsibilities are not a concern, and lack of social similarity to members of available groups is not an issue (Finn and Lavitt, 1994). Also, software has increased an individual's ability to communicate with others at any time of the day at a much smaller cost to the user. Members can compose e-mail off-line and then send the e- mail at the time of their choosing, which allows them to still participate with the group members. This helps to facilitate members to participate in meetings when traveling out of town, when they are sick, or on vacation. All one needs is a portable computer, modem and access to a telephone line (Finn and Lavitt, 1994).

In one study, where participants were to work with a computer "sex-expert" system, participants of the study stated that prior to the study they did not feel very positive towards working with a computer to facilitate therapy. Whereas when surveyed after the study, participants were very enthusiastic about working with the computer sex-expert and made statements such as: the computer giving sexual advice as more active, creative, perceptive, sensitive, personal, human-like, intelligent, alert, open-minded, etc. (Ochs, Meana, Paré, Mah, and Binik, 1994). Working with a computer proved to be an acceptable mode of communication for the individuals of this study, because the nature of the topic they wished to discuss was very personal and sensitive (and taboo). Discussing "taboo" topics with a group or a therapist is anxiety provoking for individuals, and working with a computer and online has proven to be a more accepted mode of communication to gain advice. Working with a computer, with online chat groups and e-mail where there are no social constrictions and fewer perceived "risks" has proven to be very attractive to many individuals.

Disadvantages of ACOA Online Chat and E-Mail Groups

There are an estimated 23 to 25 million individuals connected to the Internet (growing at a rate of 12% a month), which is anticipated to double by the end of 1995 (Holland, 1995; Seabrook, 1994; and Wolff, 1994). Yet only one-third of all Americans have a computer in their homes. And out of that, far fewer have a modem or know how to operate it (Wolff, 1994). In order to communicate to a group online one needs a computer, a modem and access to a telephone line, not to mention the money to pay for the software and the connection time. This narrows down the number of people who can access this equipment, the resources and the chat and e- mail groups because of financial constraints. The poor cannot access the Internet, many of the elderly cannot afford to or do not know how to connect to the Internet, and amazingly there are fewer women than men on the Internet (Finn and Lavitt, 1994). But, according to Finn and Lavitt's (1994) study, the women connected to the Internet participated at an equal rate as did the men.

Some other disadvantages of communicating on the Internet are: you never "really" know who you are talking to, you run the risk of getting flamed, you can pick up a virus or a worm if you are not careful, when in a chat group it takes longer to type your message than it would to speak it, you can loose your network connection and get bumped off the system, and because you can only type so much text on one line you can get interrupted if what you have to say does not fit on one line. An advantage that could also be a disadvantage of communicating on the Net is anonymity; if one choose to make it such (see section on Anonymity for further information).

Comparison of Online and In-Person ACOA SHGs

A major difference between ACOA SHGs online and in-person is that the in-person groups do not allow cross-talk, feedback and advice giving. With the online discussion groups I attended, there is an abundance of cross-talk, feedback and advice giving. The members of the online groups seem to function very well in this atmosphere, and many of them attend in-person meetings as well. It appears that some of the members of the online chat groups and the online e-mail groups overlap. This seems to be consistent with the functioning of the in-person ACOA SHG, where many of the members would attend several of the other meetings in the area. But, an advantage of the online groups is that members are not restricted by the location of the groups. Online members can "travel" much easier from meeting to meeting than members of the in- person groups. And members meeting online do not have to worry about getting dressed for a meeting, getting a sitter for the children, driving to a meeting, going out if they are sick, they can eat dinner while attending a meeting, and relax in the comfort of their own home. Members do not have to worry about accessibility if they have a particular disability, worry about getting transportation to a meeting if they are unable to drive, or go out in bad weather. Whereas members attending in-person meetings must consider some or all of the above issues.


One of the advantages of being online is that the individual can choose to remain anonymous or to tell the other individuals their true identity when they are ready to do so. Aspects of one's identity such as age, sex, race, education, all of which would be revealed automatically in a face-to-face meeting do not come through the computer unless you choose to reveal them (Seabrook, 1994). And on the Net, since people are not judged by their physical appearance, they are judged primarily by what they write (Seabrook, 1994). But, does one ever know if the person is telling them their true identity?

There are basically two types of anonymity online (Godwin, 1995). The first is "apparent anonymity" where the system management has the capability to know who all users are and trace their true identity, if needed (as with most online services). The second type is "true anonymity" and no one can find out the true identity of the person sending mail or making postings.

The idea of anonymity may be one of the major attractions of having SHG meetings, or any other type of meeting, online. Going to an in-person meeting can be anxiety provoking, especially the first meeting. There is a great deal of social stigma attached to attending a SHG, one has "this unique problem" (Finn and Lavitt, 1994). Will the other members accept me into their group, what if my problem is worse than theirs, what if they don't understand, what if I say the wrong thing, what if I don't fit (appearance), what if I'm accepted and then rejected? What if, what if...? With online anonymity, individuals do not have to risk as much of themselves (Finn and Lavitt, 1994). As a matter of fact, members can "lurk" in meetings as long as they feel the need to without saying anything. Then, when a member is ready to "speak" one can compose their message and take the time to review it prior to sending it (Walther and Burgoon, 1992). A luxury not afforded in face-to-face (FTF) communication. And if one says the wrong thing and gets "flamed" by another member, or worse yet, rejected from the group they can create another identity and try again (Seabrook, 1994).

But most SHGs do not reject a member for their deviant behavior, online or in live meetings. On the contrary, members usually feel that when another member reveals their so-called deviant behavior that the member is opening up to them and trusting the group. The members of the group tend to feel privileged that the member has been so open, honest and trusting of them. Members are usually rewarded by the other members by additional support and they help the individual to work through the behavior (Yalom, 1995). This is one of the most important aspects of SHGs and psychotherapy groups. And since people have their anonymity, they are much more likely to say what they are really feeling, self-disclose of themselves things they would be too embarrassed to speak about in a FTF meeting, express their ideas and give advice to others; and they are more likely to come to meetings more often and participate (Ochs, Meana, Paré, Mah, and Binik, 1994; and Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly, 1994).

And with the anonymity "security blanket," individuals may be more apt take a risk and give corrective or negative feedback to another individual in the group, and learn more about themself and how to communicate effectively with others. Thus result in feeling more self-confident and make positive progress in one's own behavior modification (Lieberman, 1990; Morran, Robinson, and Stockton, 1985; Morran and Stockton, 1991; and Robinson and Hardt, 1992). When individuals practice giving positive, corrective and negative feedback they experience a type of motivation that they may not have experienced before. This motivation helps them make productive changes in their behavior. So in this role anonymity is good.

The down side of anonymity could be if the member with the deviant behavior does not choose to be responsible for their behavior. If a member with deviant behavior continues to avoid responsibility and continues to change screen names, then they tend to be in denial and the deviant behavior will not change. Giving advice and feedback can also be seen as negative, especially if you are the one receiving the feedback or advice, and you did not solicite for the advice and are not ready to receive it. Plus, when individuals give feedback or advice online, they may not be experienced at giving the advice and may come across a little strong at times. Especially since giving advice online is unique and one must be careful to communicate the nonverbal language as well. But part of the group process is helping members help themselves and each other work through this process (see section on Feedback for further discussion).

Another potential disadvantage of anonymity is that it allows users to send messages and make postings under another users name, or without a name (Godwin, 1995). This can cause the wrong person to be accused of making the posting or sending the message (causing damage to an innocent person's reputation); and allow the real individual to escape. It can also result in misinformation being spread throughout the Net. Additionally, it seems as though anonymity has led to some individuals feeling less inhibited. Individuals can hide behind this "mask" and make inappropriate advances and/or comments toward others (Seabrook, 1994; and Tannen, 1994).

Feedback, Cross-talk, and Advice Giving

Whenever a group of individuals get together to solve a problem, they do so by "brainstorming," a process of making suggestions and bouncing around of ideas to come to a well developed conclusion. Recent research has reported that this form of communication is best suited to be better conducted online (Levinson, 1994; McCarthy, Miles, Monk, Harrison, Dix and Wright, 1993; and Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly, 1994). When communicating FTF, members of a group tend to feel a great deal of anxiety when giving constructive or negative feedback, expressing ideas which they feel others might view as not creative enough or not good enough, feel that they might not get recognized individually and others in the group will take advantage of them "social loafing," or might not feel that they had an adequate chance to express their idea because others in the group dominated the floor or because they did not feel that their ideas were important enough to express (Morran, Robinson, and Stockton, 1985; Morran and Stockton, 1991; Robinson and Hardt, 1992; and Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly, 1994).

In Fubich and Coursol's (1985) study, 75 percent of the individuals surveyed stated that they preferred individual counseling over group counseling. But it is almost impossible, when working in a group setting, to not come into some form of conflict with another member of the group. This may be why subjects believe that group counseling is a riskier process, why members of such groups feel that they must approach self-disclosure with more caution, and this may also explain the lesser tendency to take responsibility when working in groups (Fubich and Coursol, 1985; and Yalom, 1995).

Individuals of SHGs tend to be much more prone to giving positive feedback over corrective and/or negative feedback. Even though positive feedback helps individuals to create a bond and an acceptance to another member and the group itself, corrective and negative feedback are necessary for individuals to realize their "deviant" behavior and to motivate them to make productive changes in their behavior (Lieberman, 1990; Morran, Robinson, and Stockton, 1985; Morran and Stockton, 1991; and Robinson and Hardt, 1992). Thus, it is essential for the "group leader" to steer and encourage the members of the group to be open to giving each other this necessary corrective and negative feedback. It is also interesting to note that research has indicated that feedback is received better if given in the positive-negative sequence, and that member-member feedback is received as well, if not more favorably, as leader-member feedback (Morran, Robinson, and Stockton, 1985).

Individuals can be reluctant to give corrective and negative feedback for several reasons: harming the recipient, being rejected by the recipient and/or other group members, and hindering the progress of the group, individual giving the feedback becomes the focal point of the group and assumes all responsibility for their message (right or wrong) and this can be unfamiliar ground for some (Morran and Stockton, 1991). But, with the anonymity of the online groups, members do not appear to fear giving the feedback as much as in FTF groups. This could be so for several reason, such as: the computer separates the individuals and acts as a buffer, members can type and view their comments before sending them, giving them an additional opportunity to think about what they want to say, and members know that if they really create a blunder the others really don't know "who" did it because their screen names aren't necessarily their real names and they can always change their screen name if they need to.

This is where I feel that online computer groups are extremely beneficial. As mentioned above, being online carries with it a certain level of anonymity, and most individuals feel safer and a sense of security. Anonymity, and this sense of security, can help an individual to overcome the anxiety associated with joining a group and giving corrective and negative feedback to the other members of the group; as well as receiving such feedback themselves. Individuals who may be reluctant to give corrective or negative feedback can benefit by the more secure nature of learning to give this form of feedback online where they have the added security of anonymity. The difficulties of learning to give feedback online is compounded by the fact that individuals only have their words and symbols to work with. But I see this as another opportunity to learn how to express oneself in a healthier manner. And as the individual expresses themself and takes risks, one can build up their courage to take larger risks which adds to building stronger and healthier relationships (Lieberman, 1990; and Morran, Robinson, and Stockton, 1985).

Member Satisfaction

As with the in-person groups and consistent with research, it appears that the members of chat groups and e-mail groups who attend and actively participate in the meetings and post e-mail are the one's who get the most out of the meetings and have the better prognosis (Johnson and Phelps, 1991; and Yalom, 1995). Although there is no real way to know which members have the "better prognosis," member satisfaction seems to be apparent by what the members write in their correspondence to one another and by the simple fact that the members are using the service on a fairly regular basis. Members thank each other for "being there" for them, for answering their e-mail, giving them advice and being supportive.

In a recent article by Deborah Tannen (1994) regarding gender and computers, the author writes the following about her relationship with a male co-worker and how through the use of e-mail their relationship developed, "E-mail deepened my friendship with Ralph. Though his office was next to mine, we rarely had extended conversations because he is shy. Face-to-face he mumbled so, I could barely tell he was speaking. But when we both got on e-mail, I started receiving long, self-revealing messages; we poured our hearts out to each other. A friend discovered that e-mail opened up that kind of communication with her father. He would never talk much on the phone (as here mother would), but they have become close since they both got online...with a computer in between, it's safer." Tannen (1994) also stated that when she receives several e-mail messages that "she feels loved."

A recent study performed by McConatha, McConatha, and Dermigny (1994) investigated the use of online communication with long-term care (LTC) residents. There are more than 1.5 million individuals in LTC residencies and their extra-curricular activities incredibly limited. The authors of the above study installed computers in the LTC facility with the Prodigy software program for the residents to use. The authors trained the residents on how to operate the program, and each resident was given an allotted amount of time they could use the computer and the Prodigy program. Residents reported that they felt useful again because they were able to connect with others outside of the facility, give advice to others and make new friends. The residents also stated that they didn't feel as "confined" to the facility. Their only complaint was that they weren't given more time to use the computer! The authors noted that the participants of the study had improved in their self-esteem, improved their mental stimulation, weren't as depressed as prior to the study, and appeared to really enjoy themselves when using the program. All of the residents who participated in the study utilized the e-mail function, and most used the games, puzzles, consumer reports and educational items. Some of the other functions that were commonly used were bulletin board services (BBS) and stock market reports. As Yalom (1995) stated, "...people need to be needed."


According to Walther and Burgoon (1992), the main difference between in- person and online communication is the lack of social context cues in online communication. They state that since there is a lack of social context cues, the individuals communicating online are at a more equalized participatory level, and this results in a more uninhibited mode of conversation. Their research did prove that groups which communicate online do develop and evolve in a positive direction, as do face-to-face groups; and that the online groups communicated more socially than did the face-to-face groups. Also, while participating in study conferences, the online groups engaged in more social communications than did the face-to-face groups. In fact, the online groups were perceived by the authors to act in more "good" behaviors of cohesive groups than the face-to-face groups (i.e. increased attempted influence with less domination, became less formal, and more receptive and trusting with each other). Initially, differences may exist in communication between face-to-face and online groups, but these differences between groups seem to lessen, if not disappear completely, over time (Walther and Burgoon, 1992). This appears to be true of the groups which I worked with as well. The individuals of the online groups appeared to to act as equals in the early stages of my observations. But during the latter stages of my observations, members of the groups attempted more and more to compensate for the non-verbal ques by using symbols and placing more emphasis on their words. Members become much more direct, and engaged in and worked through conflicts with each other. Just like in live self-help and psychotherapy groups.

Where will all this lead us? Will people want to be seen and/or heard while communicating online with others? I think being seen and heard on the Internet will definately be an option in the near future. I also feel that some people will prefer to keep their anonymity. For some, anonymity is the main reason they communication online; they do not want to be seen or identified. For others, being seen and heard on the Internet will be the attraction. People like to have choices, and some will want the option to use both, when and where they choose. As Lieberman (1990) stated, "the issue is not which is better, but rather the value of encouraging diversity in service." Some people just prefer to use the telephone or "snail-mail" services, and/or do not own a computer, even though they could if they wanted. As Levinson (1994) said, "In-person environments provide a dimension of choice missing in even the most global and diverse digital realms. Since the digital world is deliberately constructed, it is inevitably pre-packaged, and pre-packaging limits options in its early phases." Will online therapy replace in-person therapy? I don't think so. As I stated above, some individuals will prefer online therapy, some will prefer in-person therapy, some will prefer individual therapy over group therapy, and some will like a little of all of the above.


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