Social support in an Internet weight loss community

Department of Internal Medicine, Division of General Medicine, The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, 6410 Fannin Street, Houston, TX 77030, USA.
International Journal of Medical Informatics (Impact Factor: 2). 11/2009; 79(1):5-13. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2009.10.003
Source: PubMed


To describe social support for weight loss shared by members of a large Internet weight loss community.
We conducted a mixed-methods study with surveys (n=193) and interviews (n=13) of community members along with a content analysis of discussion forum messages (n=1924 messages). Qualitative data were analyzed for social support themes.
Survey respondents were primarily white (91.4%) and female (93.8%) with mean age 37.3 years and mean body mass index 30.9. They used forums frequently, with 56.8% reading messages, 36.1% replying to messages, and 18.5% posting messages to start a discussion related to weight loss on a daily or more frequent basis. Major social support themes were encouragement and motivation, mentioned at least once by 87.6% of survey respondents, followed by information (58.5%) and shared experiences (42.5%). Subthemes included testimonies, recognition for success, accountability, friendly competition, and humor. Members valued convenience, anonymity, and the non-judgmental interactions as unique characteristics of Internet-mediated support.
This Internet weight loss community plays a prominent role in participants' weight loss efforts. Social support within Internet weight loss communities merits further evaluation as a weight loss resource for clinicians to recommend to patients. Understanding these communities could improve how health professionals evaluate, build, harness, and manipulate social support for weight loss.

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    • "They pointed out that social media could help those who lack social support establish connections and obtain support. Hwang et al. (2010) investigated peer support in an online weight loss community, and suggested that 60 percent of the participants considered online members were more helpful than other contacts on the issue of weight loss. Convenience, anonymity, and none-judgment are the three distinct features valued most by the respondents. "
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    • "It has been found to be positively associated with people's well-being, which can be attributed to it buffering effect (i.e., protecting people from potentially adverse effects of stressful events) and its main or direct effect on well-being of social support (Cohen and Syme 1985). Accordingly, studies have focused on examining the content of social support, such as emotional, informational, and instrumental, and their varying compositional characteristics for different health conditions (e.g., (Coulson et al. 2007; Hwang et al. 2010)). Besides distributed in more conventional discussion forums, conversations also take place in the comments on self-reported personal health information (Frost and Massagli 2008). "
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    • "Given the nature of social network sites, it is not unexpected that a recent study has found success in using social network sites in implementing weight loss programmes (Napolitano et al., 2013). Social network sites can provide social support which can encourage physical activity and weight loss among participants (Hwang et al., 2010; Voorhees et al., 2005). SDT, with its explanation of autonomous motivation resulting from social relatedness needs fulfilment could be a suitable theoretical framework for studying interventions with a social network component. "
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