Coping through blogging: A review of studies on the potential benefits of weblogs for stress reductionDominik Petko1, Nives Egger2, Felix Michael Schmitz3, Alexandra Totter4, Thomas Hermann5, Sissel Guttormsen6
3,5 Universität Bern, Institut für Medizinische Lehre, Bern, Switzerland
4 Pädagogische Hochschule Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland
Keywords: weblogs; blogging; writing therapy; coping; stress; review
Introduction: Blogging in Stressful Situations – A New Way of Coping?
In psychology, the concept of “stress” is an umbrella term for a broad range of mostly negative psychological states with potentially health affecting implications (Carver & Vargas, 2011; Dougall & Baum, 2012). Stress can vary not only in duration and intensity but also in symptoms, which differ individually and manifest either biologically (high blood pressure, lack of appetite, sleeplessness, tremors, cardiovascular disease etc.) or psychologically (uneasiness, depression, fear, panic etc.). Stress is seen not as a simple effect of circumstances, but as result of a complex interplay between situations, personality traits and behaviour (Aldwin, 2007). Given the complexity of the psychological stress concept, research faces the challenge to find new ways of helping people deal with diverse and highly individual stress-related experiences. As the state “being stressed” is increasingly seen as normal, there is a need for low-threshold methods for intervention that do not stigmatize individuals as being “in treatment” for minor issues. One of the more recent developments has been the use of internet communication, especially weblogs, for coping with stress. To understand the potential benefits and the relative novelty of this approach, a brief recapitulation of the theoretical underpinnings of coping with stress and writing therapy is necessary.
According to the classical definition of Lazarus (1966, 1999) and Lazarus and Folkman (1984), stress is a personal reaction to a situation that is subjectively perceived as threatening (primary appraisal) when there is also a subjective lack of resources for confronting it (secondary appraisal). By coping, people seek to change the stress-inducing situation or reduce the feeling of being stressed (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Productive coping can be regarded as either problem-focused or emotion-focused (Carver, 2011; Folkman & Lazarus, 1980) although there are may further distinctions (Skinner, Edge, Altman, & Sherwood, 2003). Traditional pen-and-paper journaling has been considered as a helpful tool for both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping (Burt, 1994; Pennebaker, 1993) and research on writing therapy has assumed that disclosure through writing has positive cognitive as well as emotional effects (Pennebaker, 1997, 2004; Peterkin & Prettyman, 2009; Sloan & Marx, 2004). On the cognitive side, writing can lead to an adaptive reframing of situations, e.g. by creating new narratives and interpretations of past situations, recognizing changes in the current situation, or developing new plans for action to change the future situation. On the emotional side, writing can be used as a form of emotional venting and – especially when writing for an audience – can invite empathy and solidarity, either in private or in public. Both aspects are interconnected. However, cognitive reappraisal is expected to lead to a more profound emotional reappraisal than the other way around (Burleson & Goldsmith, 1998; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Summing up the numerous studies following the groundbreaking works of Pennebaker and Beall (1985), meta-analyses have repeatedly shown the positive effects of therapeutic writing (Frattaroli, 2006; Frisina, Borod, & Lepore, 2004; Smyth, 1998; van Emmerik, Reijntjes, & Kamphuis, 2012). These substantial effects can also be explained by the general characteristics of writing. In contrast to talking, writing has many unique characteristics: It allows for more time to think. It produces a fixed record that endures the moment it was created, it can be reread and shared and commented on (independent of time and place). Writing is potentially anonymous, it can be self-initiated or mandated. Hence, many variants of writing interventions exist. Next to the variants of “writing therapy” (collected in Bolton, Howlett, Lago, & Wright, 2004; Lepore & Smyth, 2002), journal writing has been employed as a generic tool to foster reflective practice (Boud, 2001; Hiemstra, 2001; O’Connell & Dyment, 2011). While research on writing therapy has concentrated on mandated journal writing, research on reflective practice and coping has looked primarily at more self-initiated approaches with writing as sort of self-therapy. Today, with the advent of digital writing tools, research needs to address the question of whether these new possibilities can expand the benefits of traditional journaling approaches for both self-initiated and mandated writing procedures (Nagel & Anthony, 2009; Sheese, Brown, & Graziano, 2004; Wright, 2002; Wright & Chung, 2001).
General Properties of Blogging
Weblogs are probably the closest digital equivalent to traditional journals on the Internet. A weblog can be understood as a technological tool as well as a form of individual and social practice. As a technological tool, it is a relatively easy-to-use web-content management system that facilitates the development and maintenance of a chronologically structured website that requires frequent updating (Blood, 2002; Du & Wagner, 2006; Safran & Kappe, 2008). Popular open-source examples are Wordpress (www.wordpress.org) and Drupal (www.drupal.org). Hosted examples run by companies include Blogger (www.blogger.com) and Tumblr (www.tumblr.com). In contrast to other content-management systems, entries (so called “posts”) are usually presented in reverse chronological order. The latest posts are shown on top of the page while older entries are moved down. Posts are commonly grouped by days, weeks and months while older entries are moved into an archive. In many weblog content management systems, posts can be additionally labeled with categories and tags, allowing for alternative ways to find specific content. Weblogs have been the first to adopt a range of new functionalities such as RSS-feeds and trackbacks, giving rise to a so called “blogosphere”, where blogs can be seen as a tool of multilateral communication rather than individual information sharing. The “ease of use” made them a cornerstone of the so called Web 2.0, which was seen as a paradigm shift where common Internet users were enabled to become authors as well (Hew & Cheung, 2013; O’Reilly, 2007). As a social practice, blogging changed the way personal information became a matter of public interest. The term “weblog” was originally coined by John Barger in 1997, who wrote his “Robot Wisdom Weblog” postings on a daily basis in a very personal and informal way, describing his daily online discoveries and thoughts for an unknown and open group of readers. Even today, as weblog software has been adopted and employed by companies and for many other purposes, “blogging” can be conceptualized as an informal way of writing personal thoughts on a regular basis in a chronologically order on a webpage. In other words: “Bloggers are driven to document their lives, […] express deeply felt emotions, articulate ideas through writing, and form and maintain community forums“ (Nardi, Schiano, Gumprecht, & Swartz, 2004, p. 41). Today, this social practice has been supplemented by and partly integrated in microblogging services such as Twitter (www.twitter.com) and social networks, for example Facebook (www.facebook.com). While traditional weblogs have the advantage of technological ownership (i.e. a weblog content management system can be installed on one’s own server) and they tend to be more elaborate than the ones in microblogs and social networks, for example microblogging sites add additional control in the visibility of blog postings for selected friends, contact networks and communities. Compared to online forums, which are collaboratively attributed to a group of people, both weblogs and microblogging social networks are spaces with increased personal accountability. In addition, the informal nature of weblogs has seen some change. In educational contexts, for example, weblogs are considered to be a part of a Personal Learning Environment (Attwell, 2007) and are increasingly being used as a tool for facilitating self-regulated, student-centred and reflective learning (Robertson, 2011; Sim & Hew, 2010).
Specific Properties of Blogging for Coping with Stress
Blogging includes writing blog posts, reading blog posts of others, receiving and writing comments (Deng & Yuen, 2011). Compared to traditional pen-and-paper journals, weblogs offer a number of additional possibilities. Digital text entries can be saved, reopened and edited and digital images and multimedia files can be embedded in blog postings. Blogs can be written for different audiences and with different visibility options. Entries can be either private or password-protected for a specific audience or completely open to the web. They can be written individually or collaboratively. When public, blogs provides bloggers with a sense of writing for an audience and giving readers the opportunity to add commentaries next to the original posting or reacting within their own weblog by adding a trackback link. As digital media with the possibility of a worldwide audience and the same time, if desired, a relative anonymity, weblogs can reduce constraints that hinder individuals from communicating stressful events by offering a safe setting with which people are better able to share inner thoughts and feelings (Caplan & Turner, 2007; Rains, 2013; Suler, 2004). This opens up new possibilities for social support, which can take the form of emotion oriented empathetic comments (e.g. expressing solidarity, understanding or encouragement) or problem oriented comments (e.g. additional information, alternative explanations, possible solutions) (Caplan & Turner, 2007). It needs to be investigated whether the feeling of social support is limited to comments on writers own blogs or whether it extends to other blog entries and comments in the blogosphere, thus creating a shared online community. If and how coping practices differ between blogs and Internet discussion forums seems not quite clear yet (Salvolainen, 2011). In contrast with online-forums or mailing lists that are commonly used by online support groups (Eysenbach, Powell, Englesakis, Rizo, & Stern, 2004; Rochlen, Zack, & Speyer, 2004; Wright, 1999), weblogs differ in their personal ownership and chronological journaling structure. Finally, apart from the obvious potentials, there are also a number of dangers and pitfalls that should be taken into account (Debatin, Lovejoy, Horn, & Hughes, 2009; Heilferty, 2009; Jones, 2003). Self-disclosure on the internet poses problems of privacy that cannot easily be reversed. While those risks are primarily associated with adolescents’ use of the internet (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2010; Livingstone, Haddon, Görzig, & Olafsson, 2011), some might be applicable to adults as well. With regard to stressful events, blogging can lead to an increased vulnerability of bloggers (inviting flaming, bullying, mobbing), an increased attention of the wrong sort of people who may be inclined to give problematic support and unprofessional advice (e.g. encouragement for suicide), or leading to a feeling of increased loneliness and desperation when blog posts do not receive as much feedback as expected, and even to addiction (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011). Thus, how and under which conditions weblogs unfold their positive potential for coping with stress needs to be analyzed in more detail. As more and more studies with regard to this topic emerge, this contribution aims at collecting the available evidence in a first review.
Today, there is no systematic overview of empirical studies regarding blogging for coping with stress to our knowledge. By focusing on the concepts of “stress” and “coping” (in contrast to more specific concepts such as “illness”, “therapy” or “trauma”), we seek to find evidence for rather informal and low-threshold applications of weblogs to alleviate psychological distress. Previous reviews in related fields of study, such as the effectiveness of online support groups do not include blogs (Eysenbach et al., 2004) or they focus on rather narrow fields of application (e.g. the professional opportunities of illness related weblogs for nursing; Heilferty, 2009). By conducting a systematic review, we try to answer the following questions:
What are the main benefits and risks of blogging as a self-initiated strategy for coping with stress?
What are promising conditions for the employment of blogging as a mandated strategy for stress reduction in institutional (i.e. therapeutic or educational) settings?
For a systematic review of existing empirical studies, we basically followed the guidelines proposed by Petticrew and Roberts (2006). We selected a number of key databases in the field of education, psychology and medicine and searched them systematically with a predefined number and combination of keywords. The results were narrowed down by specific inclusion and exclusion criteria. As there were very few studies with rigorous experimental design, conduction of a proper meta-analysis was not possible. Instead, we produce a descriptive tabulated synopsis and compiled the main findings in form of a narrative overview.
Selection of Databases
We selected the following key databases for our search: ERIC (www.eric.ed.gov), PILOTS (http://search.proquest.com/pilots), PsycINFO (www.apa.org/psycinfo), MEDLINE/PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed), Thomson Reuters Web of Science (www.webofknowledge.com), Google Scholar (www.scholar.google.com) and the German FIS Bildung (www.fachportal-paedagogik.de). These databases cover the Areas of Education (ERIC, FIS), Psychology (PILOTS, PsycINFO), Medicine (PubMed) and general scientific literature (Google Scholar, WoS).
Formulating Search Queries
The following initial search terms were used: “weblog*” AND “stress”, “weblog*” AND “coping”, “blog*” AND “stress”, “blog*” AND “coping”. For the search in GoogleScholar we applied a slightly different search query: “weblog*”, “blog*”, “stress”, “coping”. These search terms are purposefully narrow as they do not explicitly cover blogging in the context of “therapy”, “illness”, “trauma”, “posttraumatic stress”, “health” or other terms, that might be interrelated. Thus, it has to be pointed out, that the review is limited to studies integrating the concepts of general “stress” and “coping”. The search was conducted between October 21, 2013 and October 24, 2013.
Application of Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria
The search yielded in a sum of 448 results that were examined and checked for inclusion criteria. We included (a) empirical studies (both qualitative and quantitative) that have been (b) published in journals, in books or as a doctoral thesis with a focus on (c) the use of weblogs (defined as a chronologically structured personal website, including personal sites on social networks but excluding exchange in online forums), d) particularly for coping with stress and psychological distress, e) with changes in coping behavior, stress levels, resilience or well-being as outcome variable, f) published in English or German. These criteria also excluded studies which used weblogs only as a research method or as a diagnostic tool (e.g. by computerized textual analysis). After eliminating double appearances, 17 articles of the consolidated list met the inclusion criteria for a review. The inclusion criteria were independently judged by two persons. Deviations in judgment were discussed until a joint decision was reached.
For our tabulated analysis we grouped the studies into one of three distinct categories:
A) Self-initiated general-purpose blogging. These studies investigate the general reasons and effects of weblog writing without focusing on specific topics or types of bloggers. In these studies, coping with stress is reported to be among the reasons for or the effects of blogging.
B) Self-initiated problem-specific blogging. These studies focus on a specific type of distress and investigate the experiences of bloggers affected by these types of problems. Although these studies seek to draw conclusions with regard to problem-specific potentials of blogging, the theoretical foundations with respect to stress and blogging remain comparable.
C) Mandated problem-specific blogging. These studies investigate the use of blogging for coping with stress when it is mandated in a formal context. In contrast to the other types, blogging is requested or encouraged by a therapist, educator or other representative of an institution.
Within each category we sorted the studies alphabetically and cross-tabulated a brief description of every study’s aim, sample, methods and results. This provides an overview of the main findings. Based on these descriptions, we draw conclusions with regard to our research questions.
An overview of the 17 reviewed studies is presented in the following chapters. The presentation is grouped according to the three distinct categories outlined above. At a glance, it can be noted that the large majority of 16 studies deal with self-initiated blogging while mandated blogging has only been investigated in one study. Within the studies on self-initiated blogging, seven studies focus on stress-related effects of general-purpose blogging while nine studies address the effects of blogging practices related to specific problems.
Self-Initiated General-Purpose Blogging for Coping with Stress
Table 1 presents an overview of seven studies investigating psychological characteristics of voluntary bloggers and their reasons for blogging. Studies differ greatly in their design, comparing practicing bloggers and non-bloggers [A1], intending bloggers with non-bloggers [A2], therapeutic bloggers and other types of bloggers [A3], bloggers with higher or lower levels of disclosure [A4, A6], general reasons for blogging in a sample of respondents [A5] or a single case study [A7]. Studies in this section are mainly based on questionnaire data [A1, A2, A3, A4, A6], to lesser degree on content analysis [A4, A5] or qualitative methods in a single case study [A7].
for Coping with Stress.
Self-Initiated Problem-Specific Blogging for Coping with Stress
Table 2 presents studies focusing on one particular type of problem-related weblogs such as stress in medical education [B1, B3], child loss [B2], disease [B4, B8], child adoption [B5], childbirth and infant care [B6] and eating disorders [B7, B9]. Not only the topics are diverse, but also the research methodology. Especially content analysis of blog postings seems to be a prevalent method in these kinds of studies [B1, B2, B4, B5, B7, B8], partially complimented with in-depth interviews [B5, B7, B9]. Only two of these studies compared bloggers with non-bloggers using larger samples and quantitative measures [B3, B6]
for Coping with Stress.
Mandated Problem-Specific Blogging for Coping with Stress
Only one study [C1] has been found to employ mandated blogging in order to cope with stress (table 3). It seems that in the field of “stress” and “coping” mandated blogging is still uncommon.
for Coping with Stress.
Overall, the reviewed literature seems to confirm that blogging might be a suitable tool for coping with stressful situations. Results from all three types of studies highlight the benefits of blogging for emotion focused coping, in terms of emotional venting and catharsis through self-expression [studies A2, A4, A5, A7, B4, B5, B7, B8, B9, C1]. In addition, receiving empathetic comments and reading weblogs of others creates a feeling of being understood and supported by a community [A1, A4, A6, B2, B4, B6, B7, B9, C1]. In a similar manner, problem focused coping through blogging is rarely described as an individual undertaking, but as a process of sharing information, providing and receiving tips and tricks, reporting on successes and failures and getting feedback from others [A4, A7, B1, B4, B5, B7, B9]. Only three studies seem to report negative differences, i.e. that bloggers are more stressed than non-bloggers [A2, A3, B3]. Since these studies are not longitudinal, it remains unclear whether this is the cause or an effect of the blogging activity. Some studies also report specific drawbacks and risks, such as waste of time, increased competitiveness with other bloggers, unwanted emotions and lying for better self-presentation [B5, B9]. Two studies reported inappropriate blog postings and aggressive comments [B3, B9]. Other studies mention the potential risks of disclosing too much personal information which can be avoided to a certain degree by blogging anonymously [A4, B9]. Anonymization is more difficult when blogging is done via social networks, however [B6]. Even though writing publicly about private matters might generally feel unusual at first, the amount of social attention received seem to outweigh these risks [A7, B2]. One study reports a risk of being encouraged by blogging to continue to be a member of a suffering community instead of finding a solution [B9].
Very few variables moderating or mediating the (successful) usage of weblogs have been investigated or even reported, so far. At least one study [A7] reports that persons who are predisposed to writing are especially suited to blog, but apart from that, studies did seldom examine differential effects. In addition, we did not find comparisons between the effects of weblogs and other forms of reflection and exchange for coping so far. Also, the interplay of weblog writing and other forms of coping activities has not been described in any detail. Finally, there are no studies in this review dealing with the question of how blogging can be purposefully used in therapeutic or educational settings. Only two studies investigate the use of blogs in formal educational or professional settings, one coming from the field of medical education [B1], one from the broader context of higher education [B3]. All others investigate the use of blogs in private lives.
Looking closer at the methods used in these studies, some potential limitations can be pointed out. The design of most studies is descriptive. Only one study employs a quasi-experimental approach [C1]. Most of the research examines naturally occurring blogging practices in stressful situations. This is known to lead to high face validity on the one hand, but also comes with a potential bias on the other. It can be presumed that only successful bloggers choose to maintain their blogs. Thus, most results can be seen as in-depth documentations of success stories. Unsuccessful blogging experiences are most likely harder to find as these blogs are abandoned or deleted. Sample sizes strongly vary, beginning with one single blog [A7, B2], to between six and twenty selected cases [B4, B5, B8], thirty and a hundred participants [A1, A4, B1, B7, B9] or more [A2, A3, A6, B6, C1] up to with a maximum of 750 subjects [B3]. Findings deriving from small samples (N < 30) are difficult to generalize. Moreover, the larger studies are consistently based on convenience samples, which are not necessarily representative. With regard to data collection and analysis, most studies rely on qualitative and interpretative methodology. Five studies are based on content analyses of existing weblogs [A5, B1, B2, B4, B8]. Others combine content analysis with interviews, open-ended questionnaires [B5, B7] or standardized questionnaires [A1, A4, C1]. Five studies exclusively work with questionnaires [A2, A3, A6, B3, B6], and two with interviews alone [A7, B9]. Content analyses of weblogs rarely document the longitudinal change of blogging practices over time. In conclusion this means that although findings are generally positive, methodological limitations of the research methods leave many questions open for future studies.
Discussion and Conclusion
The results of our review indicate that there were many instances where blogging has been documented as a powerful tool to cope with stressful situations in different fields of application. In addition to the general potential of traditional therapeutic writing, information sharing and social support as essential elements of weblogs seem to provide effective support for writers to overcome stressful situations, both in an emotion-focused and problem-focused manner. Most studies show that bloggers appreciate the open, non-stigmatizing and anonymous way that seems to be a core characteristic of the online experience. Despite these positive findings, results are not conclusive and need to be treated with caution. As there is a lack of experimental as well as longitudinal studies, observations are based on success stories and correlations might not be causal. For example, good coping strategies might not be an effect but a prerequisite of successful blogging. Similar criticism has been put forward earlier with regard to other forms of reflective writing (O’Connell & Dyment, 2011). In contrast to studies on “writing therapy”, where large numbers of experimental studies exist and writing was mandated and tested (Frattaroli, 2006; Frisina et al., 2004; Smyth, 1998), blogging does not yet seem as readily applicable for this kind of therapeutic intervention or experimental study. The reason for this might be an ethical issue. Because of the public nature of weblogs, it might be difficult for therapists or tutors to give writing assignments that require clients to go public with their problems. Although password-protected or anonymous blogging might counteract this issue, some advantages of weblogs observed in studies with successful self-initiated and public blogging might not be applicable to the same degree. While studies on “writing therapy” have gone into great detail, testing different types of writing assignments, writing frequency, feedback on writing or types of problems, research on blogging is at the very beginning and thus cannot offer such high levels of detail, so far. Instead, many studies remain anecdotal und thus preserving much of the “mystery” of previous creative writing therapy interventions (Wright & Chung, 2001). Thus, it still remains unclear how and under which conditions blogging can be successfully mandated. Research on the general use of blogging in higher education has shown that journal writing is not something that comes naturally, and it can even be considered stressful in itself (Sim & Hew, 2010). Evidence shows that blogging needs to be scaffolded by structured assignments (Berthold, Nückles, & Renkl, 2007; Boniel-Nissim & Barak, 2013; Freeman & Brett, 2012; Nückles, Hübner, & Renkl, 2012) and accompanied by affirmative coaching (Brandt, Dalum, Skov-Ettrup, & Tolstrup, 2013; Lepore, Buzaglo, Lieberman, Golant, & Davey, 2011). In addition, effects might not only come from individual blogging but from participation in a particular part of the “blogosphere” (Leggatt-Cook & Chamberlain, 2012). Not only writing own weblogs and receiving feedback from others on it, but also reading and commenting on weblogs of others might have an effect on ones well-being. How and to what extend such support can be fostered in formal settings has yet to be examined deeper. Finally, the question of how the use of weblogs can be combined with other computer-based approaches to stress reduction should be addressed (e.g. Serino et al., 2013).
The findings provided in this paper might be limited in a number of ways. Our search query with regard to “stress” and “coping” has intentionally been very narrow. As a trade-off, some studies on illness- or therapy-related blogging that do not include these keywords are missing. In addition, the technological tools and the social practice of blogging are constantly changing. In the last years, social networks and microblogs have largely taken over, and what can count as blogging is not exactly clear cut. As this review was rather narrative due to a lack of studies that qualify for a meta-analysis, many statements are the result of descriptions and interpretations rather than measurements. Furthermore, findings must be read with care because they are mainly based on research methodology documenting successful practices and not providing much insight on possible drawbacks and risks. Future studies should thus also include questions regarding the limitations and risks of this approach.
In conclusion, for people voluntarily choosing to write a weblog, this new approach combines the known potentials of traditional journaling such as emotional venting and the cognitive reframing of problems in new narrations with the new potentials of writing for an online community and receiving support. Blogging can be done with different degrees on anonymity, so bloggers are able to create a personalized space where they can feel comfortable to disclose their thoughts and feelings. Findings from studies on general purpose blogging suggest that coping with stress ranks among the main reasons for blogging. In studies focusing on bloggers with specific problems, voluntary bloggers reported weblogs to be an effective means of stress reduction. However, this finding might suffer from a confirmation bias. There are still too few experimental studies to conclude whether this approach can be used in mandated settings. Although the general hype around the blogosphere is vanishing and blogging practices are becoming more diverse with the prevalence of social networks, questions regarding specific uses for special purposes such as coping continue to be of high relevance.
This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation under Grant number 100019_146054.
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