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We need social contact, but new research shows that online can do more harm than good.

We need social contact; but online can do more harm than good

Could social contact be as important as diet or exercise as a predictor of our health and happiness? In Be Bulletproof we argue that few things enhance our wellbeing as effectively as social contact. However the latest research suggests that we may even have underestimated its importance.

Regular social contact with friends and family reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), boosts the immune system and reduces the risk of disorders such as anxiety and depression. So the fact that the internet boosts our social contact through all of those social media tools, is great news for our mental health, right?

Well, not so fast. It seems that all forms of social networking are not created equal. Your brain is not readily fooled by the screen on your laptop, tablet or smartphone into believing that you are connecting with a real-life, flesh-and-blood human.

But while online social networking does not deliver the restorative benefits of the real thing, it can’t do any harm… can it? Well, the latest research suggests that it can.

It seems that the availability of online social networking eats up the precious time that we would otherwise be spending with people who matter to us. What’s more it may be creating the illusion that we are satisfying our drive for social contact without delivering the psychological benefits.

Research by Dr Alan Teo from the University of Michigan showed that where people were inclined to use telephone, email or online social networking as a substitute for meeting up face-to-face with friends and family, the risk of depression doubles. Teo tracked over 11,000 adults aged 50 or over. The study discovered that meeting up with friends and family just three times per week, radically reduced the risk of depression.

Prabu David, Dean, College of Communication Arts and Science at Michigan State University, discovered that where people habitually reach for their smartphone to alleviate negative feelings, the risk of more damaging depression radically increases.

Connecting with other humans is a ballast against the tough times; doing so digitally is not… and when this becomes a habit it could be harmful.

Your smartphone can also intrude all real-life face-to-face social contact. Studies show that 89% of people admit checking their smartphone during their last social get-together. At the same time 82% acknowledged that it damaged the conversation.

Use technology judiciously. To draw a parallel, my children are being taught about healthy diet at school. This was unheard of when we were kids. They learn about the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables as opposed to processed foods. They are learning to make wise choices about what they are putting into their bodies. Maybe their children will be taught wise choices about the consumption of digital media; how, what and how much they consume for the greatest emotional wellbeing.

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