Today we talked about the value of social networks – a term that researchers use to describe the relationships and community ties we have throughout or life, whether it’s coworkers or family or a Tuesday night book club. Of course, when we hear “social network” these days, we tend to think about our virtual connections – Facebook friends, twitter followers, avatars we meet in Second Life.
But when it comes to health benefits, how “virtual” are those friendships? Can you garner the same benefits from online social networks as you can from off line relationships?
Last year, I wrote an article examining that very idea, and the researchers I talked to, none of whom had studied online social networking exclusively, thought that the immediacy of online relationships could have a positive effect:
“The way to think of this is before the Internet, we wouldn’t see our acquaintances very often: every once in a while, we might show up at a wedding and suddenly have 100 of our closest friends around," says James Fowler, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. "With Facebook, it’s like every day is a wedding.” And just like leaving a wedding may leave you feeling energized and inspired by reconnecting to old pals, so can spending time on Facebook,” says Fowler.
While Fowler’s research also shows that bad habits like smoking and weight gain can be contagious among close friends, emotions like happiness and sadness are easily transferable through acquaintances. The good news? “Because happiness spreads more easily then unhappiness, getting positive comments from your Facebook friends is more likely to make you happy than sad,” he says.
After that article was published, I received a lot of comments who noted that my piece missed one important point: that most Facebook friends aren’t “virtual” at all – they’re people you have met in real life, and often are people you’re closer with than just a brief encounter. Facebook both helps energize existing social ties – making it easier to plan a lunch with an old classmate when you happen to be in his or her city – and solidify new social ties – the very act of “friending” someone opens the doors to lots of potential real-life encounters, be they party invites or job networking. To separate relationships into “virtual” and “real life” doesn’t accurately express how the internet and online communications affects our daily lives.
Of course, there are different types of relationships for different platforms: Facebook is friends and acquaintances, Twitter is often friends of friends or strangers in your field, LinkedIn is professional contacts, and so on. But each go a long way to helping expand both or “real life” and “virtual” networks, and that in turn goes a long way to improving our health.
(Not everyone agrees: some researchers think that online social networkers could be contributing to our moral decline while another warns that the lack of human contact deprives us of important biological consequences. To wit, it could “alter the way genes work, upset immune responses, hormone levels, the function of arteries, and influence mental performance.”)