More than a quarter of adults in the U.S. provide unpaid care to a loved one. Twenty-seven percent of adults care for an adult relative or friend; 5% of adults care for a child with a health condition or disability.
Caregivers are one group that is significantly more likely than others to use social network sites for health-related pursuits: 28% of caregivers who use social networks sites say they follow friends’ health updates, compared with 21% of other social network site users. Twenty percent of caregivers who use social network sites say they have gathered health information on such a site, compared with 12% of other users.
Social network sites are not a significant source of health information for most people, but they can be a source of encouragement and care. In a book about social support, Consequential Strangers, authors Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman write about how people in our wide circles of acquaintance “offer practical assistance, firsthand information, and a special brand of no-strings emotional comfort.”
On a practical level, the vast majority of people living with chronic conditions never attend traditional, in-person support group meetings, although studies show they could benefit from such groups. Instead, people often mobilize their “social convoy” of family members, friends, colleagues, fellow patients, and fellow caregivers – many of whom are now connected online via email, social network sites, or by other means. As Blau and Fingerman describe it:
A natural network provides a safety net and puts the patient in charge—a good balance in any situation. Think of it as customizing your convoy. If people who are already on board don’t have the information, experience, or empathy you need, you enlist others who do.
In a pattern that matches this observation, people living with one or more chronic conditions and those living with disability are significantly more likely than other social network site users to gather health information on these sites. Twenty percent of social network site users living with chronic conditions do so, compared with 12% of social network site users who report no chronic conditions. Twenty-three percent of social network site users living with disability get health information on these sites, compared with 13% of those who report no disability.