EXETER, England, April 21 (UPI) -- Good riddance, comment thread trolls. Online discussion forums can be beneficial and even promote offline community engagement.
According to a new study by researchers at the University of Exeter, Internet users who participate in online forums reported satisfaction with their online experiences. Researchers even found participation in online forums to be correlated with offline engagement and participation related to issues raised in forums.
Researchers at Exeter polled users from a variety of online forums, including online groups dedicated to a range of interests, hobbies and lifestyles. Survey respondents were sourced from both stigmatized groups and non-stigmatized groups -- communities dedicated to sensitive issues like mental health, and those organized around a shared interest like golf or weight-lifting.
The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found online forum users found their informal (and often anonymous) online gatherings to be positive environments -- places for both answers and support.
While the majority of today's online interaction happens on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, online forums organized around various topics remain alive and well-attended. Some 20 percent of Internet users participate in some type of online forum in the United States.
The stigma is that online discussions bring out the baser forms of human interaction and communication, but the latest study suggests a rosier picture.
"Often we browse forums just hoping to find answers to our questions," Louise Pendry, a psychologist and researcher at Exeter, explained in a press release. "In fact, as well as finding answers, our study showed users often discover that forums are a source of great support, especially those seeking information about more stigmatizing conditions."
The study also found that the more involved online forum users became, the more likely they were to get positive benefits out of their experience.
"In a nutshell, the more users put into the forum, the more they get back, and the pay-off for both users themselves and society at large can be significant," added Jessica Salvatore, a researcher at Sweet Briar College.