In an article published on Scientific American Mind, (The Social Cure, by J. Jetten, C. Haslam, S. A. Haslam and N. R. Branscombe, Sept/Oct 2009, pp. 26-33,) the authors state that “…being part of social networks enhances our resilience, enabling us to cope more effectively with difficult life changes such as the death of a loved one, job loss or a move.”
This study is important because not only it addresses the value of social contacts for our general well-being, but it also points out that being part of MANY social networks actually is a greater benefit than being part of only a few. Being involved with different social networks at the same time, in fact, forces us to develop multiple social identities. We are neighbors in our residential community; we are parents in our children’s schools; we are partners with our spouses or other professionals; we are colleagues with people at the office or other places of work; we are worshippers in our religious affiliation to a church, a synagogue or a mosque; we are children to our parents, sisters and brothers to our siblings, students when we attend classes, we are volunteers in our community, and so on.
Having multiple social identities keeps our lives in balance and protects us in times of change. When we lose our job, for instance, or we move to a different neighborhood, the other social identities that remain in place can compensate for these changes, making us feel anchored and providing continuity and connection. It is, in fact, when we feel completely disconnected that our stress increases more and can reach levels damaging to our mental and physical health.
We all know women for whom taking care of their children was their entire lives, who struggle with their identities when their children live home. Or the workaholic who retires from his job and all of a sudden has no identity, because his job met all his needs for so many years that he doesn’t know who is his aside from it.
We have been talking, so far, about social networks, without specifying whether these are real or virtual. These days, with so many people using online social networks routinely, one needs to ask the question: are virtual social networks as protective of a person’s physical and mental health as real ones?
The answer to this question is: it depends on the place of virtual networks in a person’s life.
If virtual networks are used by a person in addition to real ones, as a way of staying in touch with people who live far way, for instance, or with people one doesn’t see regularly, they can be healthy, as they reinforce real social networks. However, when virtual social networks replace real ones, rather than adding to them, they can actually make people less socially engaged and more isolated. It is easy, in fact, to sit in front of the computer and write a few sentences here and there and stay in touch this way, rather than taking the time to go and visit someone, or finding the time to spend with someone one hasn’t seen in some time.
The other issue here is that virtual social networks may reflect an aspect of someone’s personality that may be different than what is expressed in real life.
I will write more on this in my next blog, as who we are in reality and how we present ourselves in virtual reality has become an interesting issue that causes interest as well as concern, as more and more people make use of the internet to socialize.