Using technology to provide peer support services is similar to other forms of peer support, but it takes place via telephone, through video-conferencing or on the Internet. There are different ways of using technology to support each other. For example:
- Telephone-based outreach
- Email groups
- Chat rooms
- Online forums
- Facebook groups and other social networking
There are advantages and disadvantages of using certain types of technology. Here are some examples of the advantages:
- People can use online forums and social network groups at whatever time of day or night suits them.
- People can remain anonymous if they choose to.
- It doesn’t cost people any extra if they already have access to the Internet.
- People don’t have to travel to support each other.
- People don’t have to participate in an ongoing way. They can come and go if they want to.
- It can build a sense of community between people.
In studies of telephone-based peer support interventions to manage chronic health conditions, researchers have found that it can be a satisfactory substitute for face-to-face peer interaction. In fact, many people prefer the relative anonymity and increased privacy of talking on the telephone.[i]
Similar to telephone support, web- and e-mail–based support can overcome the problems some clients have with face-to-face contact. During the past decade, there has been significant growth in Internet-based support groups and other uses of the Internet to mobilize peer support.[ii] Technology makes it possible to continue the tradition of supportive interaction in combination with information and education in a way that goes beyond what a single agency can provide.
Here are some areas for consideration when making decisions about using technology for peer support conversations.
- Peer specialists who provide more formalized support services are held to the same standards of protecting client confidentiality. You need to understand the law and how to protect client privacy in the use of the various technology methods.
- Be cautious in telling your personal story in online social groups. Before joining and writing about yourself, it’s best to examine your purpose for doing so, how much you want to expose about yourself, and if you want to leave a permanent mark. Once something has been shared on the Internet, there’s always going to be a trace of it out there, even if you later remove it.
- Be aware that not everyone has access to a computer and some people may have low literacy skills. Therefore, you can’t expect that these types of modes of communication will work for all persons you serve.
This is an expanding area and it is recommended that you seek additional information as you move forward in your work as a peer specialist. The National Frontier and Rural Addiction Technology Transfer Center is a leader in this area for behavioral health. Links to some of their archived webinars and other materials can be found in the Resources section of this module.
Examples of Technology-based Peer Support Options (Please note that this is not an endorsement of these sites; merely examples.)
SMART Recovery offers an online community with a variety of services, including a Daily Check-in Peer Support Forum.
AddictionSurvivors.org is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing peer support communities for those with addiction disorders and their families and friends.
Learn to Cope is a support organization that offers education, resources, peer support and hope for parents and family members coping with a loved one addicted to opioids or other drugs. They offer an online peer support forum.
Boundaries are like safety cones around common relational units such as bosses and employees, counselors/peer specialists and clients, parents and children, or teachers and students. With peer specialists and the persons they serve, boundaries provide clarity and structure to the helping relationship. Boundaries set a peer specialist’s role apart from that of a clinician or a friend.
Our look at setting boundaries begins with a definition. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “boundary” as something that indicates or fixes a limit or an extent. Another way of saying this is that “boundaries tell us why we’re both here and what we’re supposed to be doing together.” Once the peer specialist and the client have a mutually agreed upon understanding of the purposes for the partnership (the “who” and “what”), the next step in boundary setting is defining the “when”, “where”, and “how” of communication.
Setting clear boundaries and being explicit from the start of the helping relationship for all of those involved is recommended. The following suggestions are offered for more specific situations:
- To avoid a friendship-like relationship developing, it is important for you to understand that when you are acting in the peer support role, the focus of the interaction ought to remain on the client’s needs.
- Establish and maintain the boundaries of time and place for carrying out peer support responsibilities. This means to clarify that you are available as a peer specialist only at specified times and places.
- Recognize your personal needs and manage their work-related issues through supervision or through peer relationships with other peer specialists (providing support for each other.)
- Recognize signs that indicate you are becoming too involved with the client or the client is becoming too dependent on you.
Check with the organization that employs you about policies related to sharing of personal information such as private or mobile phone numbers and home addresses.