We all should be beginning to appreciate just how much social contact affects our health. A major question that often arises concerns the relative value of our online social connections vs. face to face relationships. Do our social ties through Facebook and Twitter provide the same health benefits as face to face interactions?
It's probably too soon to say definitively but a number of interesting studies have been assessing the effects of social media on health and well-being for more that a decade now. An early study called set off alarm bells in 1998 after following teenagers who used the internet for 2 years. They concluded that teenagers who spent more time online experienced declines in social and psychological well-being and those who were lonely and depressed beforehand were not necessarily more attracted to the internet. Perhaps heavy internet use for online communication led teens to forsake critical relations with local friends and family for weak relations with strangers.
From these early studies, a great deal of research has blossomed to examine the effects of Internet use on well-being. Unfortunately many of them are cross-sectional studies and can not make firm conclusions about the effects social connections have on health. Of the few longitudinal studies that have been done, results tend to show that online communication is related to a decrease in psychological well-being among introverts and those who received low levels of social support. Extroverts on the other hand, and those with more social support tend to benefit from online communication.
in the flagship journal of social psychology found somewhat of a paradox in internet use claiming that frequent users felt both more connected and more disconnected. The authors speculate that people who are lonely use Facebook more to fulfill a basic need of relatedness and perhaps as a coping strategy.
Yet many others use Facebook frequently not because they lack social connections but because they really enjoy interacting with their friends online. To show this another way, volunteers in the study were restricted from going online for 2 days. Everyone felt lower levels of social connection during the blackout but those who were previously lonely and seeking connection had greater internet use after the cessation period.
This suggests that the motivation to seek relatedness is a more basic need than deriving pleasure from interacting with established friends. It may turn out that those who need to feel more connected may not truely get there online. I would bet that these virtual social connections would provide less in the way of health benefits for lonely people.
If you already feel socially connected and use Facebook and other online tools to stay in touch with your peeps then it seems likely that online interactions will provide similar health benefits as face to face relationships. Perhaps by reducing stress and providing a greater sense of support.