Online Social Support and the Risk of Compulsive Internet Use: a Cross-national Exploratory Study
1Open University, UK2Henley Business School, UK
Background: Although the health benefits of traditional social support have been largely documented (e.g. Uchino, 2006), less is known about its virtual form. Some of the benefits include increased social capital, potential for egalitarianism and the cathartic function of writing (e.g. White and Dorman, 2006). Notwithstanding, there is a risk of over-extending our virtual time at the expense of traditional interactions (Burrows et al., 2000). Moreover, spending long hours online is associated with higher risk of Compulsive Internet Use (CIU), a maladaptive use that results in damaged family relationships (Meerkerk et al, 2010). In this study, we explore the extent to which using online channels to interact with the main source of social support contributes to the development of CIU. Furthermore, to address the lack of reference to macro-variables in the study of social support and health, we collected data in three countries with different freedom in their internet access. Methods: We used a cross-sectional, survey-based design (NUK=277, NUSA=268, NUAE=270). The survey was made of validated scales (i.e. CIU, Meerkerk et al, 2010), Social Support (Rena et al, 1999) and new items that we developed to assess main source and main channel of social support. Findings: Those that mostly used online channels to interact with their main source of social support were at a higher risk of CIU. UK and UAE used online channels in higher proportion than face to face, whereas the USA used all channels (face to face and online) in a similar way. UAE reported higher levels of CIU than UK and USA, even though they also were the country that spent the lowest time online. Discussion: Our study highlights the dangers of relying on online channels for social support. The study also supports previous studies regarding the health benefits of using a variety of social support sources (Cohen et al,1997) and expands these to incorporate the channel of interaction(virtual vs non virtual).