Social Network of Care
Technological advancements over the past ten years have transformed the way people handle their problems. Our society has undoubtedly changed, and the most common form of communication is shifting, from face to face, to “Face to Facebook”. There are many claims of what this phenomenon is doing to our society. As troglodytes and Luddites sound the alarm, progressive baby boomers, along with many from generation X, Y, and Z, fully embrace technology and what it has to offer. Regardless of your stance on what technological advancement is doing to our society, it is hard to argue that there is a noticeable difference in the way people are looking for help and support. This change is evident when one looks at assistance services in substance abuse rehabilitation. A lot can be learned by examining the current relationship between social media and recovery. It has been found that although there can be benefits, the ever-growing “social-network of care” for substance misuse is not a substitute for professional help. By discussing the pros and cons of this evolving partnership, those in need can be more informed when they seek help.
More and more people look towards social media when they need help. Research done by Georgia Tech and Columbia University illustrates that social media has emerged as a platform for support around recovery. Unfortunately, many people who seek online support get help from those who aren’t qualified, professionals. Online communities or “Groups” have emerged that are not bound to any laws or formal regulation and are run by moderators who volunteer their time monitoring the content but rely mainly on member reports of inappropriate content. There is no requirement of professional credentialing to start or manage such groups or act as a moderator. Members rely solely on the advice and support of other members. It’s fast, easy access to free “help” and the popularity of such networks becomes evident when searching Facebook for “recovery support”. One can easily find a multitude of public and private groups for people either in recovery or who want to get clean. Some private groups boast more than 85,000 members and over 240 posts per day. A popular public group has over 240,000 members. This gives only a glimpse of the amount of communication potentially being exchanged on the topic and doesn’t account for the vast number of comments and private messages that take place between members.
Another problem that arises is the existence of predators in online support groups. These predators are often people who are hired by rehab facilities to prowl support groups searching for prospective clients. In other words, there’s no way to prevent a rehab marketer from using these groups as a pool of desperate clients from whom they can profit. It’s surprisingly rampant. On Facebook, rehab marketers are hard to pin down. Some publicly announce themselves as representatives of a given center and offer their assistance to people who are struggling. Others anonymously run their own “community support groups” without identifying their business or disclosing their financial interests. The Verge illustrates how this creates a pool of help-seeking people who have no idea they’re on a rehab’s social platform. From this, the rehab can fish for “leads” who they’ll privately message with the end-goal being getting them on the phone to sell them on their facility. Other marketers just anonymously hang-out in groups that already exist, waiting for a juicy post from prospects.
Furthermore, those who have gone to treatment and failed often blame rehabs and advise others not to get professional help. This again is commonplace in the internet culture, asserting one’s opinion as fact and refuting those who disagree. The discussion boards of online support groups establish a social norm where participants believe they should trust each other more than they can trust medical professionals. You can see evidence of this type of online behavior in everyday life, from researching any given topic to reading product reviews or looking for somewhere to eat. This can make it very difficult to know which “fact” is true; let alone decide where to receive services. But where rehabilitation differs is that it’s a professional, mainly medical service. There isn’t a proven do-it-yourself substitute, and anyone giving an opinion as fact and advising against consulting professional help is putting others at risk, whether it’s regarding cancer treatment or substance misuse services.
Lack of regulation appears to be the main issue. According to the previously mentioned research, online communities promote clinically unverified, alternative methods to ameliorate withdrawal symptoms, manage detoxification, and recover from OUD (opioid use disorder). This includes off-label use of prescription medication as well as substances like kratom and ibogaine. Members frequently share everything from tips on passing drug tests to medical advice, and others use such forums as a potential dating pool or worse. Some may view the peer advice as “helpful”, but it’s clear that linking thousands of people who share a common pathology such as addiction can have major pitfalls. This isn’t to say that online support groups are ill-intended, it’s just that the technology and sudden popularity of them have superseded an ability to make them what they’re truly intended to be. The idea that support groups are a hotbed for predators isn’t new, but the anonymity and access provided by the internet culture may have turned something beautiful into a cesspool. It’s a double-edged sword, as these drawbacks are at first the apparent allure.
The country has recently cracked down on some of the predatory financial practices mentioned above, but there are still those out there looking to benefit from others’ misery. Laws have been formed that prevent some forms of rehab “headhunting” and archaic financial practices now viewed as unethical. But, outside of this, legislative hands are tied when it comes to the content and membership of social media support groups. According to an Intercept article, unethical organizations are forever on the lookout for ways to exploit cracks in the system. It explains how Google has created the impression that the problem with tech monopolies, such as Facebook, is inadequate self-policing leading to an exploitable Wild West online. When it comes to support-groups, needed regulation can only take place from within the platforms that host them. But, the number of man-hours it would take to regulate a support group of any size properly makes it currently unfeasible, particularly when considering financial remuneration for those who’d do the work. As a result, injustices still occur regularly. Dangerous advice is given and taken. People engage in medically unproven practices they learned about from someone else. And people do find support, too. But support is different than treatment and is not a replacement. Support is best viewed as a supplement for someone who has achieved proper recovery, and by definition, support lends aid. Leaning on an unregulated forum susceptible to ill-informed opinions and potential predators may not be in the best interest of someone who’s achieved hard-won recovery.
The best advice is to seek professional help from accredited services. By doing so, there is some semblance of accountability. The credentialing process that professional treatment facilities go through is designed to weed-out the above concerns. The academic and practical training their staff must undergo manifests in fact-based procedures and methods. The physical setting provides checks and balances that are impossible to achieve online, and where medical professionals are needed (as in most detox circumstances), they’re present. There’s an obligation to render sound, safe service to the individual, which is enforceable by law. Granted, entering a formal treatment setting isn’t as convenient as logging in while sitting on your couch. But, then again, aren’t instant gratification and social dynamics often at the root of addiction in the first place? Going to a treatment facility or a face-to-face support group is certainly less convenient. Still, while online support groups may appear to emulate them, there’s no evidence to suggest they’re more effective.
If you decide to use support groups and social media services, do so cautiously and be aware of the risks. It’s not that these forums can’t be helpful or used properly. One must exercise their judgment in any setting. But, where sound judgment is lost, as it often is in addiction, or is lacking, as it may be in early recovery, there’s no replacement for vetted, professional guidance. It’s a common social predicament, which appears to be magnified by the internet as so many things have become; the internet brings ease and accessibility, which can amplify both the positive and negative potential of any field. A recent study shows how individuals with stigmatized illnesses such as addiction, anonymity may facilitate a more open and honest discourse compared to traditional in-person therapeutic models. But increased anonymity is also appealing to internet trolls, cyber-criminals, and predators. Certain populations may be more vulnerable to scams, temptation, and dishonest conduct, and unfortunately, that appears to be the case for those who are undergoing trauma and are desperate.
In conclusion, there are many things to be wary of when seeking help on social media platforms. Whether it be exposing yourself to false information, destructive advice, or predators who may want to take advantage of you for financial or other unsavory reasons, the risks are out there with little to no consequence for the perpetrator and a startling absence of accountability for all involved parties. While anonymity and ease of access are potential benefits, they also facilitate those who would seek to misuse what could otherwise be a constructive forum. Furthermore, support, no matter how helpful, is not a replacement for treatment. At the very least, individuals should seek medical consultation to understand the risk and explore options. To avoid the potential risk, it is best to utilize professional services that are accredited in some way. Doing anything else is taking a chance with your future that may result in something you cannot recover from.
About the Author
Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with substance abuse for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate.