People are fundamentally social beings. We have lived and developed in societies and tend to seek relationships in our daily lives – we build families, friendships, business connections, and so on. For most of us, our connections form a core part of our daily lives and our identity. However, with the advent of social media, a lot of our connections don’t happen face-to-face anymore, but they occur through the screen of a device.
Often, our face-to-face connections disappear from our daily lives to be replaced with face-to-screen interaction. An important question to ask, then, is how does a lack of direct, actual connection hurt us? Let’s take a look.
Most of us don’t feel good when we are lonely. Loneliness is a highly negative experience, subjectively speaking. But social connection is not only satisfying, but also essential for our health, as studies show. Loneliness can, quite literally, kill us.
A study reviewed 148 studies that had over three hundred thousand participants in total. It found that participants with stronger social relationships had a 50% increase in their likelihood of survival, so people with weak social relationships were more likely to die sooner. This was true for people of different characteristics (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010 ). A lack of social connection, then, can make it more likely for people to die sooner.
Another study considered the impact of social connections throughout the different stages of a person’s life. A higher degree of social connection was associated with a lower risk of disease and dysregulation throughout all the life stages. A lack of social connection, on the other, hand, was consistently linked to very elevated risk in different life stages, like adolescence and old age. The impact of social isolation on health could be seen as significant as the impact of physical inactivity or diabetes (Yang et al., 2016). Just these two studies show how the lack of social connection can negatively impact our well-being.
But are face-to-face interactions significant? Can we make-do with just online communication? There is evidence to suggest that we can’t. A study considered depression in older adults and examined how face-to-face interaction and online interaction could predict depression. It was found that those adults who had interpersonal contact with friends and family more frequently were less likely to develop depression, with more contact being linked to less depression. Online communication did not have the same effect (Teo et al., 2015).
Online communication is not something to be demonized. It can be used effectively to support existing friendships and enhance a person’s well-being, as can happen with adolescents who usually use instant messaging and online communication to stay in touch with existing friends (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). However, online communication can support an existing relationship, but can not replace face-to-face interactions. Another study found that face-to-face communication could inspire feelings of closeness online interaction did not have (Mallen, Day, & Green, 2003).
What does this mean? Firstly, we know that social connection is fundamental in our lives and that face-to-face interactions are an essential component of social connection. Without social connection, our health suffers, physically and mentally, increasing a risk of mortality. While some sources could say that online communication can enhance our face-to-face interactions and help us maintain our relationships and connections, online communication is not enough by itself to help us create meaningful connections with other people. Face-to-face interactions should still be at the core of our relationships. Online interactions can help nurture our relationships, but most of our connection should be based on interactions that happen in real life.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A Meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Mallen, M.J., Day, S.X., & Green, M.A. (2003). Online versus face-to-face conversation: An examination of relational and discourse variables. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 40(1-2), 155.
Teo, A., Choi, H., Andrea, S., Valenstein, M., Newsom, J., Dobscha, S., & Zivin, K. (2015). Does mode of contact with different types of social relationships predict depression in older adults? Evidence from a nationally representative survey. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society., 63(10), 2014–22. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26437566
Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., Harris, K. M., … 100872, B. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 578–583. doi:10.1073/pnas.1511085112
Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2007). Online communication and adolescent well-being: Testing the stimulation versus the displacement hypothesis. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1169–1182. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00368.x