Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, is a clinical psychologist who has worked in
Australia and at the University of Oxford in the UK. She is a Director of AI-Therapy
and a co-creator of the Overcome Social Anxiety treatment program. Twitter:
The Internet and forums
There are several ways that people who are having fertility problems use the internet. Most importantly:
connecting with others using online forums, message boards, or social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc)
finding information about causes, symptoms, treatments, etc.
Both of these can be helpful, but we must take some care.
The very act of sharing your story (e.g. on fertility forums, starting a blog, etc.) can be therapeutic
Forums and social media provide you with the opportunity to help others in a similar situation
It is an effective way to educate the greater population. Sometimes I feel like issues related to infertility are still in the shadows. By speaking openly we can help end stigmas and teach people to treat the subject with compassion.
One of the downsides of easy access to information is self-diagnosis. Always keep in mind that a few hours of reading on a subject isn't the same as years of medical training. Educate yourself, but also consult with an expert. For more information, see "symptom shopping" below.
There is a lot of bad advice out there. Some of this comes from well meaning, but unqualified individuals (see the page on myths), and some comes from seemingly reputable news sites (the subject of the next page). As a general rule, be skeptical of everything you read online. Ask yourself "what evidence is there that this is true?".
The stories people are most likely to share are the extremes. For any situation you fear, you can find both horror stories and stories that read like miracles. Both of these are unhelpful. Horror stories lead to stress and unfounded pessimism, and miracle stories can lead to false hope. Balanced and realistic accounts of things rarely become "popular" online and therefore normally don't show up in your google searches.
The act of spending time on forums or Facebook can actually be an "avoidance behavior". We will look at this more closely in the section on behaviors.
Sometimes message boards to can turn into a form of group rumination, where people echo each other's concerns and worries. This can reinforce existing anxieties, and plant the seeds for new ones.
One last warning - be careful about your privacy online. The feeling of anonymity when browsing the internet is largely an illusion. Even when you don't directly provide your real name, you are leaving behind a digital trail that can often be used to identify you. Don't be paranoid, but keep this in mind when sharing personal information.
There is a troubling phenomenon where people say things online that they would never say in a face-to-face situation. While the overwhelming majority of people on fertility support forums are kind and warm, you will come across some who are judgemental or just plain mean.
The extreme of these are known as "trolls" in internet slang. Trolls are cyberbullies who (due to a personality disorder) actively seek out vulnerable people to harass and abuse. Do not avoid online discussions because of trolls, but be aware that they are out there. If you do encounter one, by far the best way to deal with it is to flat out ignore them. Trolls crave negative attention, and will move elsewhere if you do not give it to them.
Uncertainty is a central feature of having a fertility problem. In everyday life, we often turn to the internet when we need something, whether it is for work, shopping, information, socializing, studying, etc.. Therefore, it is only natural that when we start to try to conceive we search for information online. This can lead to something called symptom shopping.
Symptom shopping is when you have a list of symptoms that you are experiencing, and you start looking around for what you might have. Often you will come across a list of symptoms that includes other items (e.g. fatigue), and you might think to yourself "Now that I think about it, I have been tired lately". It is very easy to end up with a self-diagnosis that is completely incorrect. Furthermore, recent research conducted at the University of Oxford (Muse et al 2012) suggests that online symptom searching can actually make anxiety and stress worse. Therefore, there is a strong reason to target this behavior in your life.
The final word
Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of someone experiencing fertility problems a generation ago. Finding good information would have meant a trip to the doctor or library. Connecting with others was also much more difficult, increasing feelings of isolation and despair. We are lucky to have the internet available to us as a resource. However, it is important to use it with care. The ultimate goal is to have a balanced and informed view of your situations, and spending too much time online can lead you astray.