I’m Dr. Stephanie Tikkanen, an assistant professor in OU’s School of Communication Studies, and I currently teach COMS 3200 for the Social Media Certificate. While I enjoy helping students learn to see social media through a communication studies lens, I am also involved in social media-based research outside of the classroom. Currently, I am working on a project that looks at how we can use social media as a way to seek and provide social support.
When we think of supportive behaviors, it is common to think of very physical acts: giving a hug, being a shoulder to cry on, or bringing over a pint of ice cream when someone has had a bad day. Social media, however, offers us a new context that may actually improve our experiences with both getting and giving support! I’m working on a project right now with a COMS graduate student, Sarah Parsloe, looking at support-seeking by fathers of children with Sturge-Weber Syndrome (SWS), a very rare genetic condition characterized by facial birthmarks, glaucoma, and seizures. (In full disclosure, my sweet nephew Jayden has SWS, and this is my way to give back to a community that has done so much for him!) You can imagine that fathers with children who have these special needs have a lot of added stress, and need to seek specific advice from dads in similar situations. Many of the features of social media that draw us to use it in the first place make it an excellent source of social support of these dads—and for many of us, too.
Consider the role of time: it can sometimes be hard to offer support to someone face to face, because you have to balance your own reaction to their news with your attempts to be supportive. On social media, the inherent time delays enable you to not only have some time to process the problem and respond more effectively, but they also allow you to answer when it is convenient for you!
The anonymity we have online helps us, too. It’s often much easier to open up to someone when you can’t see their face. This helps SWS dads feel more comfortable asking for help—but often it makes giving help easier, too. When we know nothing we say will be tied to our identity, we can feel safe in exposing our vulnerability.
Finally, the rareness of SWS means that dads who “get it” are few and far between. Social media allows them to meet other SWS dads across the globe. It can do the same for us, too; even if you think you are the only one in the world with a particular problem, social media makes it easy to find someone who understands.
Social media is about so much more than wasting time in line at Starbucks or building brand awareness. It’s a great way for people who need help to connect with those who are best able to provide it—and makes it easier for both parties.
by Dr. Stephanie Tikkanen