The Perils of Online 12 Step Meeting Engagement

by Dr. Don Grant, MA, MFA, DAC, SUDCC IV, PhD

ONLINE 12 STEP MEETING ENGAGEMENT; Hindsight IS Indeed 2020

#WhatItWasLikeWhatHappenedWhatItsLikeNow

Before I begin, I feel it only fair to “qualify” why I was asked to write this piece.  In my doing so, hopefully you will not only understand the reason, but also my motivation in accepting the invitation to “share” on this topic. 

In the interest of full transparency, I have been a committed member of several 12 Step programs for almost two decades myself, but also believe that for those seeking recovery, there are many avenues to pursue.  Thus, for anyone who disagrees with 12 Step engagement, please know that I absolutely respect your decision, and only want you to be healthy, well, and successful.

In the early 2000’s, I began to notice sobriety support “chat rooms” online, and online recovery opportunities increasing.  My observations of this phenomenon caused me to direct my doctoral work towards a non-prejudicial investigation of their use and efficacy value, ultimately resulting in choice of my dissertation topic and subsequently published research study exploring any potential differences between face-to-face (F2F) and online sobriety support.

It still stands as the only legitimate investigation comparing these two types of recovery communities and is entitled “Using social media for sobriety recovery: Beliefs, behaviors, and surprises from users of face-to-face and social media sobriety support.” (Grant, D. S., & Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2017); Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(1), 2–20. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000126). 

My study investigated key questions related to F2F versus technologically mediated sobriety support.  My original 2009 study hypothesis, and four subsequent research questions, have now become even more relevant in 2020.

            Hypothesis:  Participants who have engaged in both mediated and F2F sobriety support will show a preference for the F2F modality

            RQ1:  Will participants who have engaged in both F2F and mediated sobriety support find it easier to be more honest in the F2F environment than in their mediated participation?

            RQ2:  Will people in recovery who have used both mediated and F2F sobriety support be more likely to be using substances while participating in one modality or the other?

            RQ3:  Will participants who have engaged in both mediated and F2F sobriety support report having decreased their attendance at F2F sobriety support since engaging with mediated sobriety support?

            RQ4:  To what degree will sobriety success be related to the use of mediated and F2F sobriety support

The significant results of my research were clear, scientifically legitimate, solid, and quite inarguable: Although there is tremendous value in online support, users of both preferred F2F over mediated sobriety support, felt it easier to be honest in F2F engagement, and frequent attendance of F2F meetings, but not online, was positively correlated with sustained sobriety success.

The takeaway was that F2F 12 Step engagement offers the strongest support for recovery success.

I believe that the real variable at play here is not necessarily the 12 Steps themselves, but the fellowshipping they offer. Like-minded people, gathering in solidarity and support of each other “works if you work it.”

This is why I was interested in revisiting the outcome thesis points of my original study now, when our unexpected pandemic-generated reliance upon online meetings, and explore the experiences of those currently engaging in them, and how those experiences may impact our 12 Step future when the world reopens and those church basements safely welcome us back in.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 ambushed our planet in an unprecedented way that devastatingly affected/effect just about all of us on it. Like addiction, it appears to demonstrate seemingly no singular prejudice against any demographic, although those with substandard access to resources or assistance, certainly appear to be its most vulnerable hosts.

Fortunately, for the first time in history, technology has offered us the gift of video-based opportunities through which we can try and sustain our recovery. But the questions of whether or not “Zoom” (or similar video platform-based apps)for 12 Step meetings is really working, welcoming, good enough, viable-or even sustaining-are just a few questions those who have experienced them have been asking.

In the United States, as the virus refuses to remiss, civil unrest, natural disasters, unemployment, fear of financial insecurity, continued confinement, conspiracy theories, social media chaos, unending uncertainty, and an election that has pitted family, friends, neighbors, and associates against one another, have created the perfect agar for substance abuse and relapse.

During the pandemic, alcohol use has soared (https://www.npr.org/2020/10/05/920437811/americans-are-drinking-14-more-often-during-pandemic-study-finds) with heavy drinking by women rising by up to 41% (https://6abc.com/alcohol-consumption-pandemic-covid-19/6676976/). 

Opioid use has surged, with The Washington Post calling it the “epidemic within the pandemic,” (https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/the-epidemic-raging-within-the-pandemic-opioid-addiction). NPR further reported that drug overdoses have been spiking during the coronavirus pandemic, rising by roughly 18%, and the CDC estimates the U.S. will suffer more than 75,500 drug-related deaths in 2020-setting a bleak record for a second year in a row (https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/10/14/923721544/sharp-rise-in-drug-overdose-deaths-seen-during-1st-few-months-of-pandemic). 

Those statistics now introduced, I wonder how many of you reading this are truly shocked or surprised by them. With F2F communal opportunities now limited at best, “Zoom”-type meetings have been the only “CDC-approved” place for us to gather, share, and support each other. The question a lot of us are asking.is:  Are video-based 12 Step meetings enough?

Are we receiving the same support and “feeling” of safety through our online meeting participation as we did in our brick and mortar spaces?

Do we experience the same serenity after logging off from our online congregations we used to feel walking or driving home from a meeting?  And what about our newcomers? 

Is a device delivered meeting as discoverable, welcoming, effective, or even slightly arguably attractive as one F2F?  Certainly, the tempting draws of free coffee and sugar which have lured many a reticent recovery candidate into F2F meetings are no longer viable enticements for our online spaces.

During the past few months, not only have I relied on “Zoomcovery” engagement, but I have also canvassed dozens and dozens of my friends, peers, colleagues and clients, to hear their thoughts, experiences, and perspectives of online meetings.

The 24/7/365 ability for us to discover meetings outside our normal geo-limits, explore previously inaccessible truly “like-minded” meeting options, and fast ease of engagement without traveling, parking-or even wearing pants are all super positive.

There are those expressing serious concerns regarding what they consider negative-and maybe even irrevocably injurious-components of online 12 Step meeting participation. The following is a list of the most expressed concerns.

            Anonymity Protection.  First and foremost is anonymity-the spiritual foundation of all our traditions.  Potential anonymity breach, including recording of meetings which identifies some attendees and could later be used by someone outside of the meeting in a manner in which the participant did not desire, is a strong concern expressed by those who have engaged in online meeting platforms.

The Ralph A. Brown Act states that members of the public cannot be required to sign in as a condition of attendance at a public meeting.  However, the Brown Act is silent as to whether members of the public must be permitted to remain anonymous, once in attendance at a meeting.  Thus, creates the question of online 12 Step meeting anonymity security.  Administrators (or their support system/assistants) have access to our emails if meetings require a password that must be sent

People have been reported to have captured images of AA meetings and then posted them online, breaking anonymity.  In addition, remember to be mindful of the environmental background revealed when engaging with video based platforms.  Avoid potential compromising of privacy or undesired personal exposure.

            The Newcomer as a primary purpose.  Open meetings are open to all.  With the necessity of passwords, meetings become “closed” to only recurring members, administrator’s invites, and those who “know” where to find them. Some have expressed concerns about the struggling alcoholic or addict who cannot get access because they are new to the “Zoom meeting” thing.  They worry that without historically relative ease of discovery (i.e. online meeting directories), or passwords being privately shared, the potential newcomer in need of support may not know “where to go” to get the help they seek other than an Internet search which could prove intimidating, frustrating, or overwhelming. Newcomers not being able to “greet,” be of service, or celebrate milestones with “tokens” or cakes has also been cited as a significant loss generated by online meeting migration.

In short:  although online meetings are a terrific option right now for established fellows, we have not developed a truly inviting etiquette regarding how to welcome a newcomer into an online meeting. 

            Fellowshipping.  Some of the concerns shared include feeling a lack of ability to truly “Fellowship” in the way upon which they have become accustomed and relied. Saving a seat for a friend has been edited from online meeting engagement.  Joining hands together at the end and making that connection has obviously been another COVID-19 casualty.

Some miss the little things:  that look of comfort (“I’ve been there”), gentle smiles, and pre-meeting, break time, and post meeting amity.  Also missing are communal comfort and reactions of support during shares, and the organic laughter, so singular and cherished in a 12 Step gathering.;;L

            Service Opportunities.  No real opportunities to be of service, or even take someone to a meeting, were the chief complaints.  In addition, limited opportunities for newcomers to make new vital recovery connections through a “Greeter” commitment, or any of the customary other types was also a complaint expressed by those missing their F2F groups.  Some have suggested that we create online meeting service opportunities that are fulfilling and purposeful.

            Maintaining Meeting Integrity.  This lane was probably the one which delivered the most vociferous complaints from those I interviewed prior to writing this piece.  Critics of online meetings shared their feeling that online meetings provide an unacceptable acceptance for lack of respect.  Not paying attention, multi-tasking, allowing those to attend who do not “qualify” (i.e. closed vs open meetings), inappropriate sharing, Zoom-bombing, camera disabling, attendees visibly seen doing other tasks (walking about, doing chores, cooking, on their phones, multi-screening, even driving, etc.), no truly enforceable “dress code.” cross/over talking, “checking out” others and then “looking them up” via the Internet, side flirting through messaging apps (either within or outside of the meeting), inappropriate sharing, foul language, etc. are still cited problems which began early on in the new Zoom meeting game, although many of these issues appear to have been appropriately amended and reconciled.

Private messaging, undesired attempts at private communication, and “side game hustles” certainly do not occur at most F2F meetings (i.e. no one is “passing notes), but apparently is still a significant problem in some online meetings if appropriate security settings are not engaged. In addition, copying attendee names and attempting later to hit them up, “friend/follow,” or even investigate them online have also all been disclosed as issues emblematic to online meetings. Disregard for appropriate grooming/dress, logging on late, and leaving meetings early have also been common issues of complaint, cited as signs of disrespect-both for the fellowship and self.

            Lack of Accountability. The concept of “suiting up and showing up” is a basic 12 Step precept.  As discussed above, the lack of F2F service commitments, which inarguably compels/has coerced many a fellow (especially resistant newcomers) to a meeting they might otherwise ditch, has been noted as a problem in terms of meeting accountability. 

Non-fans of online meetings further argue that it is certainly easier to notice when someone is missing from an in-person meeting, than if they “ghost” an online one.  Not to mention try to locate them. 

The ability for attendees to enter or “leave” an online meeting at will (a behavior they probably wouldn’t do in F2F) applies in the “accountability” column, as well.

            Technological Equity of Use Facility.  Lack of attendee technological facility (i.e. not knowing how to change setting to private, going over capacity, revealing attendees phone numbers or other identifying information) is claimed as the most significant-and understandable-potential problem here. 

As we have progressed, the learning curve has improved; But sometimes that creates another barrier to easy access for those not comfortable with technology.  Sharing of the passwords, changing of platforms/technological protocols also can prove confusing or lead to attendees just giving up because it is too much of a hassle.

Potential Misinterpretation of Group Support.  Much of communication is unconscious and nonverbal.  Facial expression, eye contact, posture, gestures, affect, attentiveness, tone of voice, reactions, appearance, grooming, hairstyle, dress, accessories. On video, these cues are difficult to identify and visualize.

Even some of the harshest critics of online meetings with whom I spoke had to that some ability to connect is better than none.  The real controversy seems to surround the fierce fight to utilize what we have available, but not abandon the church basement; a cause which I also strongly endorse.

Whether you share these concerns or not, online meeting opportunities are here to stay.  The silver lining in all of this are the positive aspects they offer.  They also will evolve and many of the concerns some currently hold will hopefully be repaired and discharged.

There are some aspects of gathering F2F, my own research proved, can never be replicated nor replaced by online connection.  That does not mean that a hybrid of engagement through both F2F and online support is not valuable.  Certainly, it might mean an even increased meeting participation when a F2F meeting just is not possible, but an online meeting can work.

It very well may be that Covid-19 spikes will continue to restrict our safe ability to attend meetings in person.  In that case, we should thank goodness that modern technology has availed us with the gift of communal recovery support.  We should engage with them, use them, and not abandon them due to stubborn prejudice. 

If a particular online meeting just does not work for, offends, or maladaptively triggers you, then just like we have always “suggested” in F2F support:  Find another meeting.  But when we do come through this pandemic it is vital that those of us who rely on those brick and mortar rooms to never take for granted their importance in our recovery. We need to return to them and each other. 

Finally, it is imperative that we continue to be of our best service to the newcomers during these difficult times for them and support them in any and every way possible. And then, when we return to the rooms, welcome and shepherd them back in with us in loving kindness. 

My deepest thanks for allowing me to share on this topic, please keep yourself and your loved ones safe, and happiest of holidays to you all!


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