by Alexandra Nelson, M.S.
The Internet has emerged as an increasingly available and popular source of social interaction and support for women struggling to manage stress and concerns about their fertility. Online forums and message boards, where women gather virtually to discuss fertility-related issues and challenges, are used by millions of women to find community and foster mutual support. The surge of online community activity has sparked scientific interest in the unique functions and benefits of these online communities. Drexel University psychology researchers have developed a new study to anonymously survey women who use these resources in hopes of finding answers to emerging questions about the impact of such community-building among women struggling with infertility (see below to learn more about their study).
If you’ve struggled with fertility problems, you probably know all too well its far-reaching impact on social, emotional, and psychological well-being. Particularly for women, infertility can be a devastating struggle, one that is often endured in private. Despite the prevalence of fertility problems, which affect millions of women and couples in the United States and worldwide, many women with infertility perceive social stigma that can contribute to feelings of isolation, alienation, and shame. Such stigma can lead to stress, poor perceptions of social support, and anxiety and depression, compounding the already heavy emotional burden of infertility.
The private nature of infertility and fertility treatment presents a conundrum. For decades, scientists have demonstrated that social support is a vital buffer against the emotional toll of stress. This is especially true for women, who benefit tremendously from feeling supported by their social communities, which may include spouses, family members, friends, and acquaintances. For women with fertility problems, communication about infertility can be particularly meaningful, associated with less stress, anxiety, and depression. But with infertility perceived as such a private and socially stigmatized experience, how and where can women find social support to protect them from emotional distress?
The potential benefits of online support are numerous: like in-person support groups, which have long been considered a front-line support for women with fertility problems, online communities provide access to peers who share similar circumstances to provide empathy and understanding; moreover, the added feature of in-home access to online support and communication make these forums especially convenient and easy to utilize, and participation can be anonymous and completely self-directed, allowing for as much or as little access and participation as women desire. Furthermore, women don’t need to participate in the discussion to find social support, as a majority of women who utilize online social support forums identify themselves as “lurkers,” reading but not actively contributing to discussions.
The growing popularity of this new frontier of Internet-based social support has sparked interest among psychosocial researchers and providers. Who is using these forums, and how, and why? Psychology researchers at Drexel University are attempting to answer some of these questions through an online survey of the psychosocial aspects of Internet-based social support for infertility. The study is currently collecting surveys from women aged 18-65 with current or past histories of fertility problems, infertility, or difficulty carrying a pregnancy to live-birth delivery, and who have lurked or participated in online forums related to fertility issues. The survey is anonymous, available online, and takes approximately 25 minutes to complete. In appreciation of those who participate, the researchers are contributing two $100 donations to the American Fertility Association and RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association to support education, advocacy, and support for those affected by infertility.
If you’re interested participating in this anonymous survey, click the following link to learn more: http://www.surveymonkey.com/DrexelFertilityStudy
Alexandra Nelson, M.S., is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Drexel University. Her interests include women’s health psychology, particularly related to fertility and infertility, pregnancy loss, online social support and communication, and coping with chronic medical conditions.