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The Impact of the Internet on Adoption: Has it Helped or Hurt?

Who remembers the Information Superhighway of the nineties? I first heard about it in 1995, just before NBC aired the film version of The Other Mother and a reporter phoned for an interview. As I answered the questions received by him from people who had read the book, I tried to imagine how my responses would float out into the ethers and actually reach others. The following week, I attended the annual American Adoption Congress conference in Las Vegas, where people were already figuring out how to use the Superhighway for searches, as if our collective need to find lost family had propelled its existence.

Before the Internet, a much greater percentage of searches were heartbreakingly long and frustrating. We often had to rely on others from different parts of the country to do our research for us – search angels, who voluntarily poured through microfiche for hours on our behalf. The phone calls back and forth forged lasting bonds for many. We would go to great lengths to help each other. Then there was a searcher nicknamed “God” because he always found, mostly within days, and because he had to eerily disguise his voice when he called, to protect his identity. Throughout the process, we sought support and learned from each other through support groups, reading the few but excellent books that were available at the time, and attending conferences. Before the Internet, we had only two ways to make the first contact: by phone or by letter.

Now, thanks to the Internet, searches are successful to a far greater degree and much faster. But a disturbing trend developed at the same time. Numbers attending support groups dwindled, until now few exist anywhere. Facebook groups have taken their place, but sadly only superficially replaced their need.

After having spoken with my son’s adoptive mother on the phone for hours, she’d promised to send pictures. Weeks later, the photos had not arrived. The night before his birthday, I attended my support group and asked those there if I should call or wait. I wanted so much to call but didn’t want to intrude and was afraid of blowing my chances for a reunion. A male adoptee, who recently found his mother only to learn she had died three years before when he had begun his search, looked me straight in the eye from across the table and said, “Call him!” As fearful as I was to take his advice, the pained yet certain look in his eyes was what I needed to find the courage. If Facebook had existed then, I would have received ((((Hugs)))) and encouragement, and probably would have had to also wade through horror stories that would have immobilized me. I can still feel his penetrating eyes to this day: “Please call him. I will never have that opportunity.”

In those days pre-Internet, reunions were far more successful and solid relationships more likely to develop. In support groups, we learned from each other on many levels because we were physically present with each other. We understood our own stories by deeply listening to each other’s, until we healed enough to make that first contact. We knew the group had our back. By its nature, Facebook support cannot carry the same weight and so we can be left drifting instead of solidly prepared to deal with the complex issues involved in healing ourselves and our relationships. Today, that same adoptee in a Facebook group would be my “Friend” and comment, “Call him!” to my Facebook query, but no way would I have received the full impact of his words enough to talk to my son on his birthday.

Increasingly, relationships seem to be crumbling from the lack of depth and few sentences advice, and from the lack of opportunity to move through our pain at the levels only face to face support groups can provide. Facebook support can actually inflame a difficult situation, instead of healing it. If I had only been on Facebook during my search and reunion, I know I would never have written The Other Mother. The powerful stories I was witnessing and the incredible frustration we all felt about not being understood was what compelled me to write the book. Facebook relationships, as nice as they are, would never have reached me to my core like personally knowing the women in my group had.

The Internet has hurt us in another way. Making that first contact sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. Hearing each other’s voice or holding a handwritten letter in one’s hand begins the process of making us real to each other, where before we only “knew” each other in what Betty Jean Lifton termed the “Ghost Kingdom.” Emails and Facebook messages have no such power and so can actually prevent a reunion from taking place. Now it’s easy to “spy” on Facebook pages or through the Internet before making contact, instead of leaping into the unknown with faith. Email relationships can last for years before a real reunion takes place, if ever. The written word can be open to interpretation. Misunderstanding can linger and thus fester, as we wait for an email response, feeding our insecurities. The Internet makes it too easy to hide from our natural fears about meeting each other again, instead of facing them and changing with the courage of others’ journeys to buoy us, within the safety of real live support groups.

So what do we do, given Facebook groups are important, too? I would like to encourage people to create support groups in their local area, perhaps backed up by a Facebook page, as well, for members to keep in touch during the time they aren’t meeting. I remember being quite reticent about joining one when I began my search, but I became a convert to the point of facilitating groups for eighteen years now, even though most of my issues have long been resolved – I believe that much in their importance to our healing. Those who have benefited from groups in the past and have resolved much along the way might consider facilitating a group, so that others could learn from their journey. Or, a local therapist with knowledge of our issues could be persuaded to run a group. Concerned United Birthparents, a great resource, has long provided an umbrella and guidance for support groups.

These days, with the Internet such an integral part of our lives and our communication with each other, it’s easy to forget the depth of healing only possible by sitting down together and sharing our journeys face to face. We must pay attention to and protect ourselves from becoming “stuck” in our pain and in our stories, and the feeling of “emptiness” that the lack of true connection can create.

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