By looking at the literature concerning the usage of Social Media, it is apparent that the focus predominantly lies on its potential negative effects. In order to contribute to a more balanced discussion, this paper focuses on the positive effects of Social Media as a platform for support. In order to do this, this paper first refers to academic journals examining the positive effects on peoples' willingness to speak out and to engage in civic engagement and collective action. Moreover, it takes a closer look at its possibilities to provide emotional support for the users' social capital and well-being in general, as well as its benefits specifically for people with mental health disorders. To further illustrate the findings, it takes the users with autism spectrum disorder as an example.
Keywords: Social Media, social support, social capital, civic engagement
The Positive Effects of Social Media as a Platform for Support
Since the invention of the first platform in 1997 (Hale, 2015), Social Media gained a significant importance for the social interactions of the 2.789 billion active Social Media users worldwide (WeAreSocial, 2017). These platforms, that are designed to provide access to social networks for a large number of users, get mostly examined by literature because of its negative effects like cyberbullying, shitstorms and addiction. However, it is also important to take a closer look at its potential to contribute to peoples' social interactions and their wellbeing in order to ensure a balanced discussion.
Social Media as a Platform for Support for Courage Willingness to Speak Out
The willingness to speak out online is highly dependent on the perceived social support which enhances the sense of power that is necessary to build up the courage to express one's opinion. This social support gets conveyed through the perceived opinion congruency, which describes having the same opinion as the majority of users (Chun& Lee, 2017).
The theory about the “Spiral of Empowerment” (Chun& Lee, 2017, p. 121) states that individuals feel empowered to speak up in the company of a group of like-minded users. This is based on the perceived social support, which Chun and Lee (2017) defined as “the perception of available resources/ supportive social ties acquired via social interaction” (p.121). This support significantly increases the perceived power over the environment and the ability to influence others and, therefore, triggers individuals to act. Social Media facilitates the search for groups of similar opinions leading to a sense of empowerment to express one's opinion, which would not have been expressed otherwise due to a lack of confidence and opportunity (Chun& Lee, 2017). Furthermore, Social Media makes it easier to participate in discussions with liking, sharing and commenting as well as providing the user with a direct system to share and exchange reactions (Chun& Lee, 2017).
In contrast to the “Spiral of Empowerment”, the dependence on opinion congruency can also have opposing effects. The “Spiral of Silence” (Chun& Lee, 2017, p.120) describes people developing a perception of the majority’s opinion and, if they are against it, remain silent in the fear of social isolation. This results in a “spiralling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the prevailing one” (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, p. 44).
However, the majority opinion can be misinterpreted and, as a consequence, enable people who are originally from a minority group to speak out (Chun& Lee, 2017). In addition, it is not always necessary to align with the majority, especially because the formation of public discourse among people with similar views makes it difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the general public's opinion (Chun& Lee, 2017). Despite personal predispositions like the attitude certainty, a person's knowledge about a topic and the communication apprehension, it sufficient to form an in-group identity (Chun& Lee, 2017). This group interaction develops when people believe that other group members have similar characteristics, interests or opinions, which form a basis for giving and receiving social support (Chun& Lee, 2017). Online platforms increase the visibility of similar opinions and therefore increase the availability of individuals who can support each other and combine their capacities (Chun& Lee, 2017). This increases the capability to achieve goals and boosts the motivation to complete specific tasks and to let one's opinion be known (Chun& Lee, 2017).
In conclusion, Social Media can serve as a venue to offer social support, form groupidentities and helps to explore the public's word-of-mouth communication, which is particularly important in times of crisis or social unrest (Chun& Lee, 2017). However, this effect is not guaranteed and always dependent on the individual characteristics of a user and the level of anonymity.
Civic Engagement and Collective Action
Another effect of Social Media that is worth examining is its ability to facilitate civic engagement and collective action. According to Obar, Zube and Lampe (2012), Civic engagement “involves moving an individual away from disinterest, distraction, ignorance and apathy towards education, understanding, motivation and action” (p.2) as well as motivating people to “make a difference in civic life and promote the quality of life in a community” (p.3). Collective action describes the pursuit of goals by more than one person which typically includes action against elites, authorities, other groups or cultural codes (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012).
According to the research paper of Obar, Zube and Lampe from 2012, Social Media can have a democratizing function, because it empowers and connects individuals “outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations” (p.2). Furthermore, it reinforces the developed ties by keeping users constantly updated (de Zuniga, 2012).
An example of its democratizing function is the American TeaParty, which launched the Facebook-like network “FreedomConnector” during the presidential race in 2011 in order to mobilize more than one hundred thousand citizens (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012).
Moreover, Social Media has a significant positive impact on social movement organizations by increasing their speed, exposure and their effectiveness of communication and mobilization efforts (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012). Especially Social Media like Facebook and Twitter help advocacy groups to educate the public, to inform, to give them a place to voice their opinion, to collect petition signatures and to submit comments to governments (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012). One meaningful example is the event in February 1997, when more than 600 advocacy groups in about 70 countries used Social Media to express opposition against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in fear of the threat of structural imperialism (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012). The large wave of electronically enhanced public opposition, with large and quickly spreading amounts of information available at the touch of a button, finally resulted in the closing of the negotiations (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012).
Furthermore, Obar, Zube and Lampe (2012) describe Social Media's benefit of the “unifying feedback loop” (p.15) which describes its interactive and user-generated nature enabling advocacy groups to participate in a two-way conversation with the users, which replaces the one-to-many approach of mainstream and corporate media.
Despite these effects catalysing the political opinion forming and civic engagement, there are still arguments for contrary effects. Obar, Zube and Lampe (2012) argue that SM could create a “net delusion” (p.2) defined by “cyber-utopianism and internet-centrism that blinds us to an evolving Internet landscape that may actually limit democratic possibilities”
(p. 2) and, therefore, distracts from more effective collective action work. In addition, a lack of personal connection and the promotion of weak ties can make masses of people to visit Social Media profiles and pages but do not mobilize them to go out on the street and actually effect change (Obar, Zube& Lampe, 2012).
In summary, by making users feel connected and increasing their knowledge about each other and important public issues, Social Media can “foster norms of reciprocity and trust and, therefore, create opportunities for civic and political engagement” (de Zuniga, 2012, p.331). However, it is still questionable whether it is sufficient to motivate citizens to actually act outside of online platforms.
Social Media as a Platform for Support for Social Capital and Emotional Well-being General Positive Effects
Since Social Media is developed mainly for relational use, including social interaction and interpersonal communication, it is associated with increasing social capital and, as a consequence, psychological well-being (Chen & Li, 2017).