Extensive research has elaborated and transitioned from the traditional definition of stigma as being a mark on someone of questionable moral status (Goffman, 1963), to support and propose a more complex view of stigma as a social construct based on human perceptions of differences in a particular culture and time (Meisenbach, R., 2010). Furthermore, scholars have considered stigma as a natural human communication phenomenon in response to the unknown or non-normative that further supports group identification (Burke, 1969). The latter notion being very important as it gives support to the argument that stigma is a necessary and inevitable construct of a society, for it promotes group cohesion and solidarity by allowing individuals to recognize insiders and outsiders of their groups (Fulk, 2001). As for stigma classification, literature does not give a clear, unified and standardized typology of stigma, yet researchers tend to categorize it in relation to different dimensions of an individual’s life; being health, work and sexual aspects the most frequently studied (e.g. DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013; Wright, K. B., & Rains, S. A., 2013; Meisenbach, R. J., 2010). In addition, research also categorizes stigma according to whether it is concealable or not (McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A., 1998) and whether it is felt or enacted (Bockting, W. O., & Coleman, E., 2013). It is important to note, however, that stigma exists as long as it is perceived by both non-stigmatized and stigmatized individuals and, as Meisenback (2010) argues, the degree to which stigma affects individuals is related to the valence and salience of such perceptions.
Although, stigma may be a natural and even a necessary human condition that promotes group solidarity as argued by Fulk (2001), it has been linked to a great array of negative outcomes such as discrimination, identity devaluation, prejudice and deterioration of physical and psychological health (Meisenbach, R., 2010). Consequently, much of the research on stigma has been focused on the identification of coping strategies that allow individuals to ameliorate the negative effects of stigma in their lives. Yet, and in spite of a few studies that have tried to forward a unified set or typology of coping strategies that may be useful for all type of stigmas (e.g. Meisenbach, R., 2010), the majority of research has been conducted on very specific groups of stigmatized individuals (e.g. lgbt, health, occupational) and, thus, has been able to identify coping strategies that may pertain only to those specific groups (e.g. Wright, K. B., & Rains, S. A., 2013; McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A., 1998; DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013). Meisenbach (2010), nonetheless, argues that her typology of coping strategies may be useful for all types of stigma. The coping strategies proposed by Meisenbach are organized under the following main categories: acceptance, avoidance, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness and denying. Overall, these coping strategies have been found to improve individuals’ quality of life by improving self-esteem, health and the provision of social support.
Regardless of coping strategy, the use of Internet based technology has been identified to greatly facilitate the access and application of almost all coping strategies due to the anonymity, privacy and self-disclosure fostered by a computer-mediated environment. In this sense, many studies have been devised to determine how stigmatized groups employ computer-mediated communication (CMC) in order to manage and cope with stigma as well as to establish the conditions under which benefits are maximized or minimized (e.g. Rains, S. A., 2013; DiNapoli, J. M., & Siller, J., 2013). Research has also tried to identify the way CMC affects offline behavior and access to offline resources (e.g. DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013). Yet, while most of the findings in this type of research support the notion of CMC as being an aid in stigma management, there are few others that challenge the idea of CMC always leading to positive outcomes by trying to identify situations in which CMC may actually have a deleterious effect on stigmatized individuals (e.g. Lawlor, A., & Kirakowski, J., 2014).
In addition, across all studies, there has been a trend to use Internet based technology such as web surveys, blogs and e-mail in order to contact and collect data from stigmatized individuals who would, otherwise, be reluctant to participate in face-to-face scenarios due to embarrassment and concerns regarding the revelation of their true identity. Thus, CMC not only has been beneficial for those who have been impacted by stigma but also it has been a tremendous help for those who study it (e.g. DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013, Rains, S. A., 2013).
Review of Findings
Studies on stigmatized communities have identified people turning to the internet to compensate for a lack of access to information and the inability to form offline relationships with others who share the stigmatized condition (e.g. DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013, McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A., 1998). Moreover, the Internet has provided a means for them to more easily disclose information regarding their stigmatized conditions and experience the positive benefits of such self-disclosure like decreased levels of stress and access to social support, without having to reveal their identities and feel embarrassment (Rains, S. A., 2013). Anonymity and privacy provided by computer-mediated environments, thus, have been key factors that facilitate self-disclosure and motivate individuals to reach out for support and information without the fear of being judged, secluded or victimized (e.g. DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013,Rains, S. A., 2013). Yet, research has identified that trust acts as a moderator in the level of self-disclosure. In other words, if an individual does not trust the target of his or her disclosures, self-disclosure would be greatly reduced. (Buchanan, T., & Reips, U. D., 2007)
In addition, Internet use has been found to promote group participation (especially in the case of concealable stigmas) that facilitate the incorporation of a group identity to the stigmatized individual’s social identity (McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A., 1998). This group identification, and more importantly, the importance the stigmatized person gives to it, has been found to lead to self-acceptance, higher self-esteem and a decreased sense of estrangement from society (McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A., 1998). As a result, individuals using the Internet, and more importantly, those participating more in CMC (posting and reading messages), come to terms with their identities and feel a greater sense of control of their coming-out process, making it easier for them to find social support and resources –which are not easily available in offline settings- that help them cope better with stigma and improve their overall well-being (McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A., 1998, Lawlor, A., & Kirakowski, J., 2014). In the case of men having sex with other men, for example, CMC has allowed them to better negotiate sex and make better decisions based on the disclosed information such as serostatus and condom use (Carballo-Diéguez, A., & Jacoby, S., 2006).
Although, in general, Internet use has been found to improve access to information as well as promote the formation of online relationships and group participation, easier access to information and online relationships does not always lead to positive outcomes. Information, for instance, could be of variable quality and veracity which makes difficult for individuals to find beneficial information. For example, an individual may think that he or she suffers from depression based on the information gathered from the Internet when, in fact, they are not clinically depressed, and thus, reach invalid or inaccurate assumptions about their health (Berger, M., & Baker, L. C., 2005). Similarly, while findings support that anonymity provided by computer-mediated environments improves disclosure of information and, as a result, allows the creation of bonds and the formation of online relationships, these bonds are not always strong enough to create meaningful relationships that would make individuals trust each other and meet offline, which may be a negative outcome in the case of identity stigmas (DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013). Nevertheless, research has also identified that for the case of health stigmas, individuals may actually benefit from lower levels of stress and depression when they engage in weak-tie online relationships in their support networks as objectivity and access to a more varied array of information is maximized (Wright, K. B., & Rains, S. A., 2013).
Group participation has also led to mixed results in the sense that although more active participation may aid the application of coping strategies and allow individuals to benefit from social support and overall management of stigma, it could also further isolate them from offline social interactions and exacerbate their levels of distress if they show an excessive dependence on online interaction and allow their stigmatized identities to dominate them (Lawlor, A., & Kirakowski, J., 2014). In this sense, and as Lawlor, A., & Kirakowski, J. (2013), suggest: “perceived benefits of active participation are more likely to be attributable to other underlying factors that encourage [individuals] to actively participate than active participation per se”.
Despite the mixed implications and findings in this line of research, CMC nonetheless has proven to be a great way for stigmatized individuals to cope with stigma and seek support that otherwise would be difficult to find or get in offline scenarios.Moreover, recent research seems to suggest that for the advantages of CMC to have a positive impact on an individual’s interpersonal and intrapersonal growth, they have to promote and foster positive changes in the offline world as well (Crowson, M., Goulding, A., 2013). Therefore, further research is needed to explore how CMC can maximize its benefits and how these could be transferred to the offline world as well as determine conditions under which CMC might actually have deleterious effects on individuals such as access to information of questionable value, social avoidance and pathological use of CMC that may impede interpersonal and intrapersonal growth.
One of the most important limitations of research on stigma has been sampling mechanisms that limit the range of action in terms of sample selection and data retrieval. Understandably, the fact that stigmatized people find it difficult to discuss about their stigmatized conditions in offline scenarios, has prompted researchers to rely on internet based mechanisms to contact and collect data. Online recruitment though may be contacting individuals who are already coping fairly well with stigma, and thus limit the application of findings to those who have already sought support. Besides, certain stigmatized conditions such as transgendered individuals may be reluctant to participate in studies that analyze them because such experimental settings may be perceived as a form of enacted stigma that further reminds them of their stigmatized condition. To note, is the fact that in almost all the samples of reviewed research, the majority of the participants are female (in many studies more than 70% are women) (e.g. Wright, K. B., & Rains, S. A., 2013, DeHaan, S., & Mustanski, B. S., 2013). Consequently, maybe men are being underrepresented in these samples. This situation raises a question as to whether women seek the most support on CMC platforms, or if it is because women find studies on their stigmatized conditions more appealing, or whether it is just because of sample size. Furthermore, online data collection relies heavily on self-report instrumentation which has been linked to error and lack of objectivity. All of these limitations in sampling techniques deserve the attention of future research.
Another limitation has been that research tends to analyze ways in which specific stigmatized groups benefit from CMC interactions, yet it has failed to perform parallel studies with people from different stigmatized groups in order to observe commonalities that would help determine those aspects which should be present and given importance in any type of online resource meant for stigmatized groups. Furthermore, research should explore more ways in which stigmatized individuals can integrate better their online and offline lives so that empowerment and support experienced in the virtual world translate into offline behavior that allows the individual to cope with stigma in the real world and, more importantly, encourage individuals to seek professional support that is very often only available in offline social networks.
Finally, a line of research should be urgently started in order to address the role and behavior of non-stigmatized individuals rather than those being stigmatized, for the whole problem of stigma may not make any significant progress unless both victims and those who give momentum to stigma are taken into account. Educational plans should be devised in order to rectify incorrect perceptions and prejudices as well as to get non-stigmatized individuals familiarized with differences that may be feared or rejected because of ignorance. The lgbtq community, for instance, has been devising plans to educate people and reduce their perceived stigma in society. Results have been promising so far, yet more research is needed in this area as to identify better mechanisms –online and offline- through which “stigmatizers” could help reduce the negative impact of stigma. After all, having not to cope at all with any stigma may be the best way to help those who are different.
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