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A psychologist explains the importance of finding a sense of community online for health and happiness.

By Maggie Seaver
March 12, 2021
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Engaging in regular social interactions and feeling a sense of community is good for us. Staying connected with loved ones and forging new social connections doesn't just make us feel good—socializing is a key lifestyle habit that promotes health and longevity

"Social connections add meaning to our lives and decrease our risk for depression, anxiety, substance disorder, loneliness, and low self-esteem," says Paula Durlofsky, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and the author of Logged In and Stressed Out: How Social Media is Affecting Your Mental Health. "In fact, research shows that social connectedness is as good for our physical health as exercising or quitting smoking."

The past year, however, has forced most people to reckon with the consequences of social isolation, the physical distance from our closest acquaintances, and the loss of opportunities to meet new people or join like-minded groups. But while groups can't yet gather in person (at least in many parts of the country), people can—and should—still find meaningful ways to socialize and gather virtually. This, of course, includes FaceTiming with friends and playing virtual games with far-flung relatives, but it also includes branching out to find a new community, supportive network, or interest group online. "Digital groups facilitate connections between users based on shared interests, activities, and characteristics," Durlofsky says. She calls it finding your "e-tribe."

"An ideal 'e-tribe' should nourish your passions, interests, and curiosities. As with your relationships or [circles] in real life, your 'e-tribe' should be supportive, welcoming, nonjudgmental, and non-critical," says Durlofsky. Here's why it's so important for our well-being, and how to find your own virtual enclave.

Where should you look?

Check Out Social Media

Your social media accounts are the perfect place to find ready-made groups, start your own, or get a glimpse into what’s out there (maybe a Facebook friend posts about a group, hobby, or topic that piques your interest). “As with any social gathering, social media can be used as a digital space for finding a group that’s just right for someone,” Durlofsky says. “A good example is online communities, like LinkedIn and Twitter. When I was writing my book, Facebook launched its new ad campaign promoting Facebook groups. Some of its slogans were, ‘we’re more unstoppable together’ and ‘whatever you’re into there’s a group for you.' It's true, we really are stronger together!”

More indirectly, you might follow someone on Instagram or other social media with a tight circle of close followers who’ve banned together in an online hub. Does a chef or food writer you follow have a newsletter? Subscribe! Is that incredible photographer you admire posting about an upcoming virtual photography class you could sign up for? Go for it. Does the podcast you listen to have a Facebook fan community? Get involved.

Subscribe to Newsletters

So many talented, influential people have garnered loyal followers via their newsletters, which create a sense of community for readers and fans. Take chef and food writer Alison Roman—she sends a weekly newsletter, posts recipes and cooking videos on her YouTube channel, hosts occasional virtual cooking classes, and is super engaged with her fans on Instagram. Or My Favorite Murder podcast co-hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark whose die-hard fans, self-dubbed “Murderinos,” have their own “fan cult,” super-supportive Facebook group, and even meet up with local, fellow fans of the true-crime podcast

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Join a Support Group

If you’re wresting with a particular issue, you may find support and solace connecting with others experiencing the same difficulties. “Research shows that people with depression, social anxiety, or other mental health issues report emotional benefits derived from online peer interactions,” Durlofsky says. “Sharing personal stories and strategies for coping with the daily challenges of living with a mental health illness, they experience greater social acceptance, connection, feelings of group belonging, and most importantly, hope.”

Try a Virtual Club or Class

There really is something out there for everyone, even just digitally. Join a virtual book club, cooking class, writing workshop, knitting group, workout class, meditation group—the sky really is the limit.

Check Out Your Local Library Website

Your local public library site may offer way more opportunities for digital community engagement than you realized. You may find volunteer groups, interest groups, classes, book clubs, and more just by checking out the website.

Do a vibe check.

It’s important to take time to ‘get to know’ the virtual groups you’re interested in being a part of before officially joining,” Durlofsky says. You can easily gauge the atmosphere by perusing old posts and group members’ comments. “Specifically, look for how disagreements between group members have been handled virtually, and take note of the tone conveyed in posts,” she adds. Are they encouraging and supportive, or nasty and narrow-minded? “Give yourself permission to leave a group you no longer feel is a good match for you.”

Find the right balance.

We’re constantly being told to disconnect from our technology and screens—but right now that’s the only way many of us are able to socialize. So it’s crucial to find balance and use screen time as a positive activity to be able to “differentiate between healthy, positive screen time and unhealthy screen time.”

“There’s no doubt that cutting back on screens when they’re used as a form of self-medication for negative or painful emotions (as one would use alcohol or food), or as a means to simply fill time when we’re bored, is a big step in caring for emotional health,” Durlofsky says. But that said, she reiterates how important being social is for maintaining good mental health. “Using virtual platforms that mimic in-person interactions are best, and make sure to schedule time to socialize virtually with friends and family beyond just a check-in," she says.

And don’t forget to balance your tech use with self-care strategies that nourish the mind and body, such as reading, exercising, or meditating.