By Will Rubin

The Bulletin

Heather Lamberton struggles to find work, making money tight for her family of four, one of whom requires a gluten-free diet due to celiac disease.

Not sure what to do, the 2015 Oregon State University grad turned to Bend Facebook group Lend a Helping Hand for help. When she donates food her family is unable to eat to a food bank run by the social media group, she in return receives gluten-free items.

“That it feels like I’m trading my food we can’t eat for food we can makes me feel like it’s more than just asking for a handout,” Lamberton said. “That seems to be the mindset of the group: give what you don’t need and take what you do.”

The notion that people forgo asking their close friends and family for assistance in favor of large swaths of impersonal strangers has attracted the interests of social scientists around the world.

More and more people are turning to their social networks for help with the most basic of needs — food, clothes and help with bills are the most common requests. So, instead of going door to door to borrow a cup of sugar, a person is knocking on hundreds of doors simultaneously.

Researchers at University of California recently found that Facebook posts asking for help receive a higher and faster rate of response than positive or negative status posts. According to a University of Texas study, 88 percent of Facebook users have more than 400 friends “while the average person counts fewer than 10 (friends) in real life.”

So why would people place their trust in those whom they’ve never met?

University of Oregon sociology professor Ryan Light said social media groups with a social service or philanthropic goal are clear about what’s available monetarily or otherwise. That makes it easier for those seeking help to know where to go to ask for assistance, thus accessing hundreds of people.

“We can see real benefit to these online spaces when we’re dealing with people who are marginalized,” Light said.

People who have a shaky social identity — how they see themselves and believe others see them — are able to find solace in groups such as Lend a Helping Hand.

Judgment is forbidden no matter what people are asking for or their reasons for coming forward, said Alli Fitzgerald, an administrator for the Lend a Helping Hand group.

Light’s fellow UO professor Kelli Matthews sees social media as a lifeline.

“Most people, they feel they can share more ups and downs, goods and bads,” she said. “They have a community they trust on social media, and the data shows that.”

If people prefer their troubles to remain under the radar, one of Lend a Helping Hand’s administrators will do the asking: “It’s such a normal thing in our group now. People can just get what they need and go without 600 other people knowing they can’t afford it.”

Social media’s adaptations for use change almost as fast as the social networks themselves. While the initial use of reaching out to long-lost friends is still relevant, social networks also are used for vetting job applicants, reaching out to suicidal users, engaging students in education, identifying possible mental illnesses and marketing products.

Social media networks are also beneficial to those who are struggling in a less-obvious manner. Location-based activity websites such as Meetup.com have been a boon to people who struggle with social anxiety. Users can join forums for people who enjoy a specific activity and get to know members before meeting up.

Lamberton suffers from social phobia — an advanced form of social anxiety disorder — and credits the forum she joined for helping her learn to manage a condition that used to leave her scared to interact with anyone.

“It would have felt like too daunting of a task, and I would have had a more difficult time meeting new people in person,” Lamberton said. “Groups like these make getting out in the world an easier task for me.”

Popular culture has long held the stereotypical person with lots of Internet-only friends to be akin to the gamer living in his mother’s basement or the nerd who argues for hours on obscure science-fiction websites. Central Oregon Community College professor Andria Woodell says that generalization is far from the truth. In reality, she said, the majority of those online relationships are beneficial to the health of both parties.

“You have a really big introvert who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time with other people, so they find ways to connect and be social online,” she said. “That’s not a detriment to their character. For those people, it’s really positive.”

— Reporter: 541-382-1811, wrubin@bendbulletin.com

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