Can online forums be a substitute for family and friends?

Online forums can be a place where people talk about anything and everything with other members who they do not know outside of an online world, but can such places, and the people within them, become a substitute for a person’s own family and friends? Online forums can be a place of escapism and a place where people can say whatever they want to, potentially spending hours upon hours talking about whatever they want while the outside world waits until they have logged off. But is this a good substitution for the potentially rich social interactions that can be gained offline?

A real world example

I have been a member of one online forum for twelve years, and I began to use it at a time when I was living away from home and didn’t have a good social life. For me, it was a way of escaping the reality of my world at the time and the negative situation I was in. I found that I loved watching soap operas and so the online forum I became a part of was primarily focused on them. I would spent a lot of my spare time talking about characters, their plot lines, what the actors were up to, and gave my opinions on what we were seeing on screen at that time. I wasn’t the only one – thousands of other members would log on throughout the days and weeks and give their comments and opinions as well. I felt part of something; part of an online community where everyone made a contribution and was heard. It felt good to interact with other people who had similar interests and opinions to me, even if we were only talking about fictional characters.
Looking back, I know that it was a much-needed outlet for me because I needed something to occupy my time. I still use the forum now, but not as much as I did all those years ago. I now use it to add something to my life, not to consume it.

Online forums

There are many online forums out there to be a part of depending on what interests a person. Films, sport, television programmes – you name it, I am sure they will be some sort of online space to write down your thoughts on it and talk to other people about it. Much like social media, you can also get instant interactions from other people about what they think. There have been many times over the years where I have looked at the comments other users post as a live television show is being aired; reality television especially can be fruitful with opinions on contestants and how the show is looking – sometimes it is more entertaining than the show we are watching!
For me now though, the best experience of using online forums is for those rare occasions now where you can’t binge watch a whole series, but you have to wait for a week between episodes. Reading online threads about such a television show can help with the waiting; discussions of theories, favourite characters, talking about aspects other people may have missed all adds to the fun of watching, and the anticipation of what is going to happen next. And knowing I am not the only person consumed by such a programme is humbling.
Being in a situation where you want to discuss something but you don’t know anyone you can discuss it with brings about a dilemma that online forums can also help out with. Knowing there are people who are possibility in that same situation can make it seem less isolating. This can be for anything, even aspects where strong views may be held; for example, politics. This is where I think online forums can really help people; they can be an outlet for views which may be strong and unable to be channelled in everyday life. Going with the politics example, if someone has strong political views but doesn’t know anyone else with the same views, or strong opposing ones, a potential discussion ceases to exist. But in online forums, there would most likely be someone to chat to about it.

Is a sacrifice being made?

But is there a real world sacrifice being made if online forums are being used by someone instead of them displaying such thoughts to other people in everyday life? I think it only is if there is another outlet to do so, but it isn’t being used. Going back to my first use of them, I needed an outlet. I needed somewhere to feel like I could spend my time because the alternative was probably to be and feel alone. I now use online forums to discuss television shows, but I still talk about them with other people in my life as well, whether that be family members, friends, or work colleagues. The use of online forums is not a substitute necessarily, but is instead another way of how I discuss my thoughts, theories and opinions. I think social interactions are needed for people to thrive and to gain all they can from life, but where there are times when such interactions can’t exist, online forums are an outlet that can be used to gain different interactions, and to feel part of something. I think they are a much better alternative than having no outlet at all.

Online forums are often a vibrant and lively place where views can be shared with people who have common interests. Discussions on a no end of topics can allow people to share in such interactions they may not be able to have elsewhere. I believe, however, that care should be taken to ensure that they do not end up becoming a substitute for real life and the interactions that are still very much needed. We now live in a world where we could spend all of our time online if we really wanted to, but family, friends, and real life would not be engaged with, leading to a lot of other problems. Can online forums be a substitute for family and friends? Yes. Should they be a substitute for them? No.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach