Does Belonging to an Online Community Inspire Change?

Written By: Rebecca Adams

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With the advent of the internet and the advancement of technology, people all over the world have been able to communicate and connect with one another in completely new ways.  The impacts are greatest for the youth who have now grown up fully understanding and accessing this technology. Technology and the youth using it have been responsible for the creation of a new idea and shape of community.

Online communities are arguably the most easily accessible, largest, and most diverse groups to have ever existed, and as such we have so much to learn from them and those who use them. From their motivations to form in the first place to any lasting impact they have on their members, online communities are a way of understanding our youth in today’s age as well as understanding the world on a global scale.

As part of my study with Dr. Hynie at York University, I engaged in research with TakingITGlobal (TIG).  TIG wanted to know whether youth feel that they have influence over the inclusiveness of their communities, and if so, what determines how much agency, control and hope youth feel about creating inclusive communities. In studying what previous researchers had done to answer these questions, I found Bandura’s observations about what he called “self-efficacy”: the belief that one has the power to create change through one’s actions. Efficacy, according to Bandura in 2002, is a vital quality of human functioning, and is related to group psychology through what is called “collective agency”, the idea that self-efficacy beliefs of group members causes the whole group to believe that together they can achieve a desired change or action.

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From the research that TIG and I did together, it seems that this concept applies to online communities. Our research consisted of an online survey completed by TIG members between the ages of 16-36, and found that those who felt connected to any online community also reported very high levels of empowerment, or self-efficacy.

Past research has also demonstrated a strong relationship between the community involvement of youth and different aspects of their psychological well-being. This doesn’t seem surprising, however I was unable to find any psychology studies about whether online communities function in a similar way, despite the fact that there is a lot of concern and questions in the media about how youth are affected by online influences. With online communities lacking representation in psychological research, I felt that the field of psychology was potentially missing a key component to understanding how youth are interacting with each other.

Bandura has commented on the concept of individual self-efficacy functioning in the online world, stating that technology influences an individual’s connectivity on a global scale (Bandura, 2002). Currently research focuses on the idea that communities are influenced by technology, but does not explore online communities specifically. This involves reframing the online world as a place that also contains whole communities (such as TIG) within itself, rather than simply being a means for communication.

Online communities are different from any other community we have ever encountered by their very nature. The members of an online community could be from all over the world, and there is anonymity of members that allows them to be whomever they wish while engaging with that group. The latter has been a reason for concern, and rightfully so, but this also allows youth to interact with each other in a way that can prevent them from being discriminated against based on their age, gender, race, ability, etc. within the group. For example, Bandura, Barbaranelli, Vittorio Caprara and Pastorelli, in 2001 did a study where they found significant differences in self-efficacy with respect to gender.

From this research, the results are promising: 90% of TIG members said that they were interested in pursuing a career that involves helping people in their community, and 77% of these participants agreed that they would volunteer their time.

Online communities are also important because they may be a place of social refuge for youth who are having difficulty fitting in. Knowles, Haycock and Shaikh in 2015 conducted research where participants were put in a situation where they were excluded in a social interaction, and then observed to see whether they engaged in social behaviour (social media or texting), or non-social behaviour (such as reading a book).  They found that 59% of participants engaged in social behaviors via computer-mediated communication after being excluded socially.

Further research will help determine whether this finding is also exhibited in youth, but this could mean that youth are using social media as a restorative function after exclusion, and the online communities they join could potentially help them regain their confidence. It would not surprise me if online communities affect the way youth interact with their “IRL” communities, as 80% of participants in our study said that they would help start initiatives in their community (online or otherwise) if they felt that something was lacking.

In reflection of his past research, Bandura (2006) addresses possible applications of group self-efficacy to global issues, and has claimed that personal change and social change that is rooted in “internationally endorsed values”. Online communities such as TakingITGlobal seem to be living proof of this, as the work they have done on an international scale is astounding. In reflection of my own thesis, and the experience of doing community-based research with TIG, the results are promising and create a stepping stone for future researchers and online communities to work together. These findings are only the first of many studies that need to be done about online communities and their impact on youth, and their potential to act both online and offline as a tool for fostering a culture of connection and inclusion.

With online communities, youth are given the opportunity to speak to each other across the world about this information and create environments for themselves, giving each other the confidence and inspiration to change the world.

 


References

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media Psychology, 3(3), 265-299. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/S1532785XMEP0303_03

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26. Retrieved from:               http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/619576594?accountid=15182

Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Vittorio Caprara, G., & Pastorelli, C. (2001). Self-efficacy                 beliefs as shapers of children’s              aspirations and career trajectories. Child Development, 72(1), 187-206. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00273

Bandura, A. (2002). Growing primacy of human agency in adaptation and change in the electronic era. European   Psychologist,7(1), 2-16. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1027//1016-9040.7.1.2

Bandura, A. (2006). Going global with social cognitive theory: From prospect to paydirt. Applied psychology: New frontiers and      rewarding careers. (pp. 53-79) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Mahwah, NJ. Retrieved from           http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/621129744?accountid=15182

Knowles, M., Haycock, N., & Shaikh, I. (2015). Does Facebook Magnify or Mitigate Threats to Belonging? Franklin & Marshall          College: American Psychological Association. 313-324.