Facts or myths about the brain? Check your knowledge after March for Science!

By Ewa Międzobrodzka | Reading Time: 4 Minutes

On April 22nd scientists around the world went out of their university labs and offices and joined the March for Science. They marched to show society how important evidence-based research is. I joined the March in Amsterdam.  As a young brain-researcher I would like to raise people’s awareness about popular fake information about brain that many people consider to be true. I decided raise awareness about brain facts and myths, because according to the international report (Howard-Jones, 2014) many teachers believe in neuro-myths and that may negatively influence the way they teach students at schools, or even at universities… For that reason, I prepared a short quiz about the brain for the March for Science. I shared it with the March attendees. Here you can learn more about popular neuro-myths and re-take the quiz!

Did you select your answers? Now you can check them: Only statement 3,7 and 10 were correct! All other statements are neuro-myths – popular fake believes about the brain. How many correct answers did you have? Are you curious how many teachers from different countries mistook brain-myths as brain-facts?

In 2014 Paul Howard-Jones published his report about neuromyths among teachers from the UK, the Netherladnds, Turkey, Greece, and China in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Recently, together with my colleauge, Krzysztof Cipora, we replicated the findings from Paul Howerd-Jones in Poland among a group of teachers, as well as undergraduates, high school students and adult readers of a popular-science Polish online portal (Badania.net).  Despite different countries, the most popular neuromyths are number (2), (3), and (4). Below, you can find detailed information about the percentage of people who agreed with false statement about the brain.

Does it matter?

Perhaps you’re wondering now “Well, I’m not a neuroscientist… does it matter at all if I believe in myths of facts about brain?”. Yes, it does matter. For example, if you’re a teacher or a student your misbeliefs about brain may affect the way you’re teaching or learning. Moreover, you could save a lot of time and money by not spending them on “brain-trainings” like Lumosity that may actually NOT train your brain according to the research.

Take action and march for science!

As a (young) scientist I feel responsible for good quality of science communication and science popularization. I personally think that our scientific research findings should be shared with society in a way more accessible manner to lay audiences. Perfect opportunities for that are science blogging (like the Socializing Science blog), popular-science presentations (e.g. TED), and popular-science books (e.g., see Kijken in het brein – book in Dutch about brain). I hope that thanks to scientists’ involvement in science popularization, we could limit the misbeliefs about science, for example in myths about brain. That is why we should take action and march together, march for science!

 

Below you may find a few pictures from March for Science:

 


Ewa Międzobrodzka is a psychologist and a PhD candidate at the Department of Communication Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In her PhD project she investigates possible effects of violent video games on social and cognitive skills of adolescents. Her passion is neuroscience and science popularization.

 

How campaigns for the good can adversely strengthen negative prejudice and stereotypes.

camiel photoBy Camiel Beukeboom / Reading time: 7 Minutes

Sometimes attempts to do good have adverse effects. Despite our good intentions we may do more harm than good. Some recent campaigns – all aimed at disproving negative stereotypes and prejudices – unfortunately appear more likely to strengthen negative stereotypic associations than to reduce them. Here is why.

I’m black, but I’m not…

One of these campaigns, published by BuzzFeedYellow and widely shared in social media, shows film clips of individuals from various social categories. One film clip shows black individuals, saying “I am Black, but I’m not…”. Another film clip shows homeless individuals saying “I am homeless, but I’m not…” and there are similar film clips about Muslims, Asians, Latino’s, fat people, and more.

The videos present us with Black people saying they are not “aggressive”, “ghetto”, “violent”, “on welfare”, “lazy”, etc. We see homeless individuals saying they are not “evil”, “drug addicts”, “committing crimes”, “homicidal maniacs”, or “trash”; and we see Muslims saying they are not “angry”, “dangerous”, “terrorists”, “hating America”, or “forced to wear a headscarf”.

black but not aggressiveNow, the tricky adverse effect that the negated messages in these film clips likely produce follows from our research on the negation bias. This research (and other) suggests that negations (as in “X is not aggressive”), are processed as if they were affirmations (i.e., X is aggressive). Even though the link is denied, the message strengthens rather than suppresses thoughts about X being aggressive. Thus, hearing “I am Black, but I am not violent” consequently most likely reinforces a mental association between Black and violent in an audience.

Second, the negated messages communicate what is typically expected for the social category – in other words the apparently existing negative stereotype. Watching the film clips thus teaches these negative associations to people who were still unknowing about them. People who already had (faint) awareness of these associations will have them confirmed.

The attempt to change the stereotypic views occurs in the second parts of the film clips. Here, the same individuals mention characteristics that are stereotype inconsistent (“I am Black, but I am actually …”). They contrast themselves to the generic stereotypic view. This presents them as exceptions to the rule, who happen to have some unexpected other (i.e., positive) characteristics. Unfortunately, this likely conveys that they are outliers; they can be set aside as odd individuals in the context of what everyone stereotypically expects. Such exceptions will more likely have the effect of proving the stereotypic rule in an audience, rather than changing it.

Not a joke (#geengrapje)

This week Dutch minister Jet Bussemaker launched another campaign in the Netherlands aimed at reducing sexism against women. The goal of this campaign says Bussemaker is to create awareness of daily sexism as expressed in denigrating remarks, jokes and ironic remarks. The campaign website (http://geengrapje.nl) presents a film clip in which a number of women provide examples of sexist remarks. These remarks imply that women should smile pretty, be sweet, take care of kids, have their period, serve coffee, become pregnant etc.

Indeed, our research on the irony bias shows that such jokes and ironic remarks have a stereotype confirming and maintaining effect. Just like negations, ironic remarks are most likely used in situations in which a person’s behavior deviates from what is stereotypically expected. For instance when a woman shows dominant behavior in a high status job, an ironic remark (“Well, she sure has a sweet pretty smile”) can function to introduce what is expected for a woman instead. The stereotype expectancies surface in such remarks and thereby have the effect of maintaining them.

#geengrapjeThe adverse effect of this anti-sexism campaign, however, lies in the fact that it confronts its audience with an abundance of the sexist remarks it actually aims to combat. Consequently, the campaign has the same negative effect as the sexist remarks: it activates and maintains negative stereotypic associations with women.

Moreover, the campaign website explicitly notes that making sexist remarks is very common behavior. Unfortunately, depicting an undesired behavior as occuring very frequently (i.e., the descriptive norm) has been shown to be a strong motivator of human behavior. Simply because people tend to do what many other people appear to do (Cialdini, 2003). To make it worse, the campaign invites people to show the unwanted behavior by sharing examples of daily sexism on social media using a hashtag (#geengrapje; not a joke). The consequence: social media are bombarded with sexist jokes with all their detrimental effects on impression formation of women.

The intended message of the campaign is that we should not make sexists jokes. Yet, simultaneously the undesired and stereotype maintaining jokes are demonstrated to us, and both implicitly and explicitly encouraged.

Resisting stereotypes

I realize that the campaigns I discussed stem from good intentions, and they may certainly have positive effects. One positive aspect of these campaigns is that they create awareness of both subtle and blatant forms of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Creating awareness is obviously good, as it may instigate public debates and brings unconscious forms of discrimination to the surface.

It is, however, frustrating to see that these campaigns simultaneously likely backfire to produce the opposite of what they intend to achieve; feeding negative associations. Stereotypes are highly resistant to change. This is partly due to biased language patterns (only some of which I described here) that serve to maintain them. Campaigns aimed at changing stereotypes must therefore be carefully designed in order to prevent potential unwanted and adverse side effects.

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Camiel Beukeboom is an Assistant Professor in the department of Communication Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is also Program Director of the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences and initiator and editor of the Socializing Science PhD blog. (@camielbeukeboom)

 

References

Beukeboom, C. J. (2014). Mechanisms of linguistic bias: How words reflect and maintain stereotypic expectancies (Chapt.). In J. Laszlo, J. Forgas, & O. Vincze (Eds.), Social Cognition and Communication (pp. 313-330). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Link: http://hdl.handle.net/1871/47698

Beukeboom, C. J., Finkenauer, C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2010). The negation bias: When negations signal stereotypic expectancies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), 978-992. Link

Burgers, C., & Beukeboom, C. J. (in press). Stereotype Transmission and Maintenance Through Interpersonal Communication: The Irony Bias. Communication Research. doi: 10.1177/0093650214534975 Link

Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychology, 12, 105-109.
Link

Coping with your PhD

Marloes Spekman By Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Most PhD students will agree with me that doing a PhD project often feels like an emotional rollercoaster. For instance, you step into your office in a good mood and happy to finally start working on your data analysis or any other part of your study that you really enjoy doing. However, at the end of the day you are totally worn out by the fact that your journal/conference submission was rejected and you did not get any real work done after you received that e-mail. To make matters worse, guilt keeps you up at night, as a little voice in your head reminds you that “You should have been working on your project tonight! Your roommate is making much more progress on his/her project than you!”

marloes 1
source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd022107s.gif

As I have experienced quite a few emotional highs and lows since the start of my project, I have been looking everywhere for advice on how to cope with these PhD-related emotions. Over the years, I have talked to many people about it, participated in a variety of workshops and courses (such as the course “PhD Success and Personal Efficacy”, and workshops like “increase your confidence as a researcher[1]” and “happiness booster[2]”), and read quite a lot about it on the Internet and social media[3].

To keep you sane, here are a few points of advice that I got from these talks, courses and workshops which have helped me cope with my project thus far:

  • Ask yourself: Does obtaining a PhD degree make you a (morally) better person? Does a degree define you as a person?
    If you said yes to these questions, you either put too much pressure on yourself, or you don’t really struggle with these emotions as you are very motivated to devote your time to your PhD (which is awesome of course, as long as it makes you happy!).
    If you said no to these questions, you should probably not be working on your PhD 24/7, and you certainly should not feel guilty about mindlessly watching television at night after a day at the office, or devoting time to other activities that are important to you.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other PhD students.
    No PhD project is the same, and every PhD student is different in terms of ambitions, norms, skills, and productivity. If your office roommate often works at night and appears to eat, sleep, and breathe his/her research, that does not mean you have to do the same. Every PhD student has his/her own ways to be most productive. For example, I write best when I’m in the office with a little noise around me, while one of my roommates needs absolute silence and writes best in isolation. You can try out different things (including the things that work for PhD students around you), but try to find the way that works best for you.
  • Set small and feasible goals
    I personally find it difficult to read without getting distracted. My roommate suggested that I set a timer for 20 minutes, and stick with my reading for that 20 minutes (regardless of how much I actually read in that period). After 20 minutes, I give myself a 5-minute break and start a next cycle of 20 minutes. I have found that it’s now easier for me to accept distracting (and often unimportant) thoughts and basically say to them: “That’s okay, but I’ll get back to you in max. 20 minutes”. It has become easier to let it go, and the really important thoughts will pop back up after the 20 minutes. Since I use this method, reading has become much less of a hurdle. This also works for writing: instead of putting “finish dissertation” on your to-do list, try to break it up into little chunks (e.g., “Today, I will write the outline for my first chapter”). Achieving these smaller goals will make you feel good about yourself, and makes writing your dissertation a much more manageable task.
  • Reward yourself and celebrate your successes!
    Positive emotions are important to build resilience for coping with future periods of negative emotion and consequently for emotional well-being (according to the Broaden-and-build theory; Fredrickson, 1998; 2001). Thus, it is important to allow yourself some time to experience these positive emotions instead of rushing through them. Take some time to enjoy your achievements!
    Celebrate the big things, but do not forget to celebrate the little things as well! Did you write an awesome paragraph, or a great blog post? Reward yourself! If you do not know how to celebrate, then think about what makes you happy, and do that whenever you have something to celebrate! (It does not have to be big – 5 minutes of social media time can also be rewarding ;-)) Did you achieve something big? Then celebrate this big times!!
  • YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
    Even though a PhD project may, at times, make you feel very lonely, know that you are not the only one who experiences these emotions. Many PhD students are surprised to learn that the Imposter syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong here because everyone else is doing better than you – is very common among PhD students. Other PhD students at times also have trouble finding their motivation or to keep themselves from procrastinating. If you talk to people about it, or search for it online, you will find a wealth of information and tools to help you through the project.

Keep-Calm-and-Write-On-true-writers-32054687-792-792

 

 

Experiencing these kinds of emotions as a PhD student is not strange. Even the most motivated PhD students (and professors as well!) have to deal with setbacks. It is part of the process. Remember, that you can do this! Just keep calm and write on (but take it one paragraph at a time ;-)).

 

 

 

Want to read more? Check out these pages:

marloes2
Source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd092809s.gif

References

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of general Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

[1] Workshop by Robert Haringsma of the IVPP (Instituut voor Positieve Psychologie; Institute for Positive Psychology), organized by the Graduate Platform of Social Sciences in January 2013.

[2] Workshop by Matthijs Steeneveld during the 2012 PhD Day organized by ProVU.

[3] Twitter follow tips: @PhD2Published, @thesiswhisperer, and @ltrprmvrn (and, if you are out for a laugh, try @YourPaperSucks, @AcademicBatgirl, @ResearchMark, or @angry_prof)

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.

Attending a summer school abroad: It’s not just back to school, it’s an experience!

Celine Klemmby Celine Klemm / Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

“Ljubljana? Where is that? Slovakia?” – “No, no Slovenia.”

“Ummm…and where is that?”

This was probably one of the most common reactions I encountered when I told friends and colleagues about my plans for this summer. I was going to attend a summer school in Ljubljana to learn about interviewing and qualitative data analysis. But I came back with much more then just knowledge about scientific methods. But you will see. So, are you also still asking yourself where Ljubljana and Slovenia actually are? I certainly did. But we are in good company. It seems to be a common ignorance – David Letterman experienced the same, with painful consequences for his sidekick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEyhdpaRuug

I fill you in: Slovenia is placed in between three popular tourist destinations, next to Italy, south of Austria and north of Croatia. If you put your finger right in the middle of the petite country, you find the capital: Ljubljana. My boyfriend drew this little map for you:

vv

Ljubljana is home to 272,220 people, roughly a third of Amsterdam´s population. It is also home to the yearly which is my reason for being here. The school promises “cutting-edge courses in the full span of qualitative and quantitative topics”, something I felt I was in desperate need of, and so I enrolled for 2 courses, each one going on for 1-week.

The faculty where the course takes place is situated out of town, about 3km north, but Ljubljana has (I know this simple fact alone will touch the heart of every Dutch), and you can easily bike up north. A half-an-hour ride later, I found myself in a small classroom with around 20 other students from all around the world and a self-confident Slovenian lady with an intriguing British accent. “Back in school!” I thought immediately and thoroughly enjoyed being back on the other side of the classroom; the simple unadulterated pleasure of soaking up knowledge. The course was on expert interviews and how to unravel the inner thoughts and personal opinions of experts. Usually being well-trained public speakers and used to giving interviews on professional rather than personal views, the real challenge in conducting good expert interviews is to get them to talk about their true and personal opinions, as we learned in the class. And so we discussed some useful strategies.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands stuck into some actual interviewing, though, which we could eventually on the third day. We eased into it, interviewing classmates first and then random campus people. Eventually, two students could interview a PR spokesperson of the government, in front of the classroom. In 2007, Slovenia had become the first former Communist country to join the Eurozone, and we interviewed Matjaž Kek, then responsible for the EU accession campaign. I learned a lot watching the interview, being able to observe what questions can open up a conversation – and which lead into a dead end. This interesting interview day tagged along painstaking hours of interview transcribing the next day – a good exercise but also a good reminder: Do I really want to conduct interviews? In all seriousness, it is worth thinking about the time investment needed for interviewing and considering it in your PhD planning, and if possible: hire an assistant for transcribing. All in all, the course was rather theoretical in nature though; the interview day was doubtlessly the most instructive.

In the second week, we were introduced to a French-Canadian teacher, now living in Spain, who left us all deeply impressed when she ordered her lunchtime coffee in fluent Slovenian. Her class was on ‘Qualitative Data analysis using NVivo’, and let me tell you, we really dug into it. We learned all steps from the storage of the interview data to the final data analysis and writing up for publication. We were introduced to a number of features of the NVivo software for developing a systematic and comprehensive coding scheme, and for getting a better feel for the data, such as words clouds, creating summaries of coding categories, visualizing data and analyzing relations between concepts through data matrices. It was a very hands-on class, a lot of work and preparation, but just as worth all efforts.

We (apart from those poor few whose duties commanded an immediate return home) ended summer school with food and drinks at the Friday markets, feeling that this was a good summer. I left Ljubljana with a sense of confidence for my upcoming interview study, both in how to conduct the interviews and how to conduct data analysis; even with excitement about the prospect of interviewing. Almost without noticing, I had also learned more about European history, Slovenian culture, about hypnosis during birth-giving (can’t hurt to know random facts), met students with such fascinating and courageous projects as interviewing convicted criminals in prison, and I made a friend in Helsinki, the place I was gonna go next on a research visit.

And if you know ask yourself, where Helsinki is…

… go back to the video and your geography book.

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Celine Klemm is PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. Her research focuses on the role of media and journalists in a public health crisis.

 

“No screens below the age of two”

Xanthe Plaisir  by Xanthe S. Plaisier / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

That is the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics. They state that media, both foreground (active use) as well as background, have potential negative effects and no known positive effects for this age group. Therefore, their recommendation is to discourage screen use for children under the age of two.

Recently I visited the Annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) in Seattle. I attended a session by Victor Strasburger and Ed Donnerstein on Children and the media. In their presentation, again this advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics was stressed: No screens below the age of two. Their main reasons for this advice is that research suggests that children who use media below this age show slower cognitive development in comparison to children who are not exposed to screens. They had to admit that exposure to television designed for young children (e.g., baby Einstein) did not show any negative effects. However, it also did not show any positive effects. Therefore, they claim that this exposure time could be better spent on activities that do stimulate learning.

As for the children at older ages, Strasburger and Donnerstein presented negative effects of media exposure including violence, sex, drug use, obesity, eating disorders, (cyber)bullying. Therefore, they advise schools to teach media literacy to their students to prevent these negative effects. Among media literacy skills are the abilities to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. To forestall negative media effects, media users need to understand complex messages we receive from the media and critically think about the messages presented. For example, media users need to be able to distinguish between health information and a commercial trying to sell health products. Otherwise, you might end up with an empty wallet but no effective cure for your health problem. In addition, when watching television, youngsters need to be aware that behavior portrayed in the media may be presented as risk-free, while this behavior in the real word is very unhealthy and far from risk-free. When they do not realize this, youngsters will probably end up mimicking the unhealthy behaviors portrayed in the media, like violence, reckless driving, drug use and so on. More relevant for young children, is the realization that characters cannot come out of the television screen and that these characters cannot hear them. Or more practically, that they cannot ‘swipe’ on a television screen. In other words, in my understanding, media literacy means that we need to recognize and learn ‘the language’ of the media.

via alieda-blandford.com
via alieda-blandford.com

When we see media literacy in the light of ‘learning a language’, we might find some parallels with traditional language learning. Children are geniuses in language learning. Prof. dr. Patricia Kuhl, from the Institute for Learning and Brain Science at the University of Washington, studies language development in very young babies. She found that while babies at the age of 6 months could not distinguish between various languages, in two months time these babies have learned to distinguish and show preferences for their native language. From this, it can be concluded that babies are very quick learners and use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world. This sensitive developmental period for language learning in babies between 6 and 12 month old, may also be found in the learning of media literacy. In addition, research shows that bi-lingual children show slower cognitive development. However, at the end, the child is capable of speaking two languages instead of one! The same may be true for children learning the language of the media. Exposure to screens below the age of two may lead to slower cognitive development, but in the end, these children know the language of the media and may therefore be less susceptible to negative media effects. Moreover, the rapid language learning of children stays excellent till the age of seven. Then, their ability to learn languages drops dramatically. This may also be true for media literacy. Children seem to pick up the skills to use, analyze, evaluate, and create media very quickly, while the older we get the more difficult we find it to adapt to a new medium. Therefore, it might be important to learn the language of the media at a young age to exploit this excellent learning capability and become media literate individuals.

In sum, children may be extremely sensitive for learning ‘the language of the media’ and become media literate. As for traditional language learning, this sensitive developmental stage may be in children’s first years. Yes, becoming media literate at such young age may lead to cognitive delay, but in the end, the child may be more capable of recognizing and speaking the language of the media and be therefore less susceptible to negative media effects. Given the medialization of our world, which is expected to increase even further in the coming decades, becoming media literate is of critical importance to stay healthy in a digital environment. In line with young childrens’ unique capabilities of language learning, young children may also have the unique skills to acquire the language of the media. Therefore, against the advice of the American Academy Pediatrics, media exposure at a very young age might be paramount to become a media literate individual.

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Xanthe S. Plaisier is a PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. Her research focuses on adolescents’ use of immoral, risky, and antisocial media content as a function of their developmental stage.

One size fits all? Why online breast cancer support communities might not be equally helpful for every patient

Anika Batenburg by Anika Batenburg / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

Imagine you accidently hit that stupid dining table with your foot again (Ouch!). As a result you suffer from an immense pain in your little toe for several days already. I bet you would go online to search for resolutions to cure this annoying pain. Aside of such trivial health problems, many people go online when they have to deal with serious health issues. In case of severe illnesses, such as a cancer diagnosis, patients not only search for relevant information but often also search for support from people who are in the same situation. The last three years I studied online support communities for breast cancer patients. In this blog I like to share the findings of one of my studies (conducted together with Enny Das), which is recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

We know from scientific research that breast cancer patients are among the most active group of patients searching for social support online. For this purpose patients or ex-patients set up online communities to meet each other on the Internet. On these online message boards (also called discussion boards or online forums), patients share their personal illness stories, search for understanding from people who can relate to their situation, and look for recognition in the stories of others. These online platforms seem to be especially appealing because patients can talk anonymously with fellow patients, from anywhere, whenever they like.

Yet, up to now, nobody knows for sure whether such online communities are actually helpful for patients. In other words, does online forum participation substantially contribute to patients’ psychological wellbeing?

The last two decades, several researchers studied such online communities. Most of these studies are descriptive in nature. That is, researchers conducted interviews with participants or analysed their online conversations. These studies showed that patients generally appreciate the online support group and prove the presence of empowering processes and therapeutic aspects. Nevertheless, there are also some downsides. For example, patients mentioned that they sometimes have difficulties dealing with stories containing negative sides of the disease, and for that reason sometimes withdraw from the online community. There are only a few studies that empirically tested the effects of participating within an online support community on patients’ psychological wellbeing. Results of these studies, however, are mixed. Some studies showed positive effects, some showed no effects, and a few others even showed negative effects.

So why do online support groups seem to be beneficial for patients in some cases and detrimental in other cases?

In my PhD project we propose that these mixed findings might be caused by individual differences. This online “magic black box” appears as very helpful at first sight, but it might not work for everyone equally because patients differ among various aspects. Patients, for example, differ in how active they are within the online community, the stage of breast cancer they are in (from an early treatable stage to a very severe stage), the amount of support they receive from their family and friends, and how they deal with their illness psychologically. Results from my recently published study indeed showed that these individual differences were all related to patients’ psychological wellbeing. Moreover, these differences might have an influence on the effects of participating within an online support community as well. The current study showed that it was of importance how actively online participants dealt with their emotions.

We already know from previous research on the psychological wellbeing of cancer patients that it is generally beneficial to actively deal with emotions rather than repressing them. Our findings showed that this was especially important for patients who are very active within an online support community. Online active patients who dealt actively with their emotions felt significantly better than patients who were equally active online but did not approach their emotions. We found no differences for patients who were much less active online. You can find a graph with the exact results in the following infographic.

Created by Anika Batenburg
Created by Anika Batenburg

 

So what to conclude from these results?

On these online platforms patients write and read about emotional cancer experiences. It might be that patients who know how to deal with emotions are more resilient to the negative stories they encounter online, and therefore are able to benefit from active online participation. For patients who are not dealing with their emotions, however, online active participation might backfire. They not only have to deal with their own difficulties, but are also confronted with stories from others that provoke additional distress they cannot cope with. However, future research must track patients over a longer period of time to prove effects. For example, it could be that patients who less actively deal with emotions can learn over time how to express their emotions from their online peers.

To wrap this up, are breast cancer patients best advised to go online and actively take part in an online support community? Well, we still cannot answer this question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Nevertheless, these results indicate that actively processing and expressing thoughts and emotions is of importance, especially when patients search for support online. Furthermore, researchers and health professionals should realize that one size might not fit all. Other external factors, such as patients’ personal situation and individual personality (for example how patients deal with emotions), might influence the effectiveness of such online support platforms.

The scientific article covering this study is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research and available online here.

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Anika Batenburg is a PhD candidate at the Communication Science department. Her research project concerns the effectiveness of online support communities for breast cancer patients. She also writes for Wetenschapper 2.0 and collects the latest developments concerning innovations in science on Innovations in Academia. Find her personal blog page here.