Face-to-face AA meetings trump online sobriety support groups – for now: study

Face-to-face meetings are more effective than online groups for those trying to curb alcohol abuse, but use of web-based sobriety support sites is steadily growing, an international survey has found.

TORONTO — Face-to-face meetings are more effective than online groups for those trying to curb alcohol abuse, but use of web-based sobriety support sites is steadily growing, an international survey has found.

The survey of 196 adults with alcohol addiction, including some Canadians, was presented Thursday at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Toronto.

“Face-to-face killed it, crushed it,” said lead researcher Don Grant of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., referring to in-person meetings versus online, or mediated, peer support for alcohol dependence.

“What we found was a very significant positive correlation between face-to-face participation and sobriety success and no correlation between mediated support and sobriety success,” Grant, a psychologist and addictions counsellor, said in an interview.

Participants in the study, recruited through Facebook and other social media platforms, completed a survey to measure their behaviours and opinions regarding 12-step meetings like those conducted by Alcoholics Anonymous and online sobriety support systems. Respondents had to have used both forms of “mutual aid” and to have been sober at least one year.

While respondents overall reported preferring face-to-face meetings, online support was increasingly being used, corresponding with a moderate drop in in-person attendance at meetings, the study found.

“Sadly, they are reporting that they are decreasing their face-to-face meetings. They’re going and engaging more online,” said Grant, who credits going to AA meetings for helping him achieve almost 14 years of sobriety.

“It wasn’t huge, but it was enough to be scary,” he said of the migration toward online platforms for people overcoming problem drinking. “And it was enough to look at what is coming as the millennials, who are much more facile and live online, start to assume the majority.

“It did show enough of a migration to online to show that AA face-to-face could be in trouble.”

Surprisingly, he said, the survey revealed that respondents were more likely to lie about themselves at in-person meetings than while communicating online, despite greater anonymity in the virtual world and the fact that honesty is a bedrock value preached by AA.

“But what we found when we looked deeper is what they were lying about was their length of time sober,” said Grant, explaining that it can be difficult to admit falling off the wagon to a community of peers, particularly if a person has relapsed after years of sobriety.

“(Online), they were more honest about their sobriety time. No one can see them. They could test the waters. They were able to say that they had relapsed easier than they could in face-to-face.”

Wayne Skinner, a clinical director in the addictions program at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), called the findings interesting and a basis for further research.

While there is undoubted value in people with addictions getting together for group support, the Internet does offer an alternative for those unable or unwilling to go that route, he suggested.

“This is where I think online has an advantage,” said Skinner, who was not involved in the research. “When we’re trying to set up support groups for family members or clients in recovery, you have to have a certain time, a certain place and enough people to come.

“That’s often a barrier.”

He said the ability to offer peer support to an extended group of people is a powerful dividend from the technology — and one that more and more young computer-savvy and -comfortable people will likely embrace in the future, he said.

“The idea that computer-mediated communication is a way that people can actually get access to help … I think is very exciting.”

While Grant worries about the future of face-to-face meetings, where alcoholics must “suit up and show up” to connect with others also struggling to stay off the bottle, he does acknowledge the benefits of online support.

“The idea that it is available 24-7-365 is phenomenal,” he said, noting that the Internet also allows people who are geographically isolated or have psychological or physical disabilities to connect with others.

“They can finally get help instead of being desperate and alone,” said Grant, who advocates regular attendance at meetings, buttressed by online support when a person needs it to either get sober or to stay sober.

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