The Relationship Between Engagement in Online Support Groups and Social Isolation Among Military Caregivers

Longitudinal Questionnaire Study

Published in: Journal of Medical Internet Research, Volume 22, Number 4 (April 2020). doi: 10.2196/16423

Posted on RAND.org on April 29, 2020

by Thomas E. Trail, Esther M. Friedman, Carolyn M. Rutter, Terri Tanielian

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Background

There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of online peer support groups for reducing social isolation and depressive symptoms among caregivers, and previous research has mixed results.

Objective

This study aimed to test whether military caregivers who joined a new online peer support community or engaged with an existing online community experienced decreased perceived social isolation and improved depressive symptoms over 6 months.

Methods

We conducted a longitudinal study of 212 military caregivers who had newly joined an online community and those who were members of other military caregiver groups. Multiple indicators of perceived social isolation and depressive symptoms were assessed at baseline and at 3 and 6 months.

Results

Compared with caregivers in the comparison group, caregivers who joined the new group experienced less perceived social isolation at 3 months (eg, number of caregivers in social network [unstandardized regression coefficients] b=0.49, SE 0.19, 95% CI 0.87 to 0.02), but this effect did not persist at 6 months. Those who engaged more with new or existing groups experienced less perceived social isolation over time (eg, number of caregivers in social network b=0.18, SE 0.06, 95% CI 0.02 to 0.27), and this relationship was mediated by increased interactions with other military caregivers (95% CI 0.0046 to 0.0961). Engagement with an online group was not associated with improvements in depressive symptoms.

Conclusions

Online communities might help reduce social isolation when members engage with the group, but more intensive treatment is needed to improve depressive symptoms.

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