News and views on the latest health issues



Keeping it real with social networking sites

Tags: Depression , Stress

Keeping it real with social networking sitesSocial networking websites have opened up a whole new world of social communication, allowing us to form an almost unlimited number of 'virtual' friendships. But these are no substitute for real friends, argues behaviour analyst Judi James.

The past couple of years have seen a mini-revolution in the way we socialise, thanks to the meteoric rise in social networking websites.

According to recent survey data from the communications regulator Ofcom, 38 per cent of all internet users now have a social networking site profile.

Among younger people, the figure is even higher, with more than half of 12 to 15-year-olds who have the internet at home stating that they have a social networking profile.

Ofcom data also reveal that 41 per cent of internet users who have a social networking site profile use these sites every day, while 80 per cent say they use them to communicate with friends and family.

So what's the appeal of social networking sites?
Social networking websites allow us to communicate with people all around the globe and make new friends without leaving the comfort of our own desk.

They have opened up a whole new world of social relationships that are based on an expansion of what would once have been described as 'pen-friends' - people we wrote to, but never saw or met.

Friends are important in our lives for a whole variety of reasons. One of the top 10 tips for managing stress levels is to have plenty of social interaction to help us avoid bouts of navel-gazing that can lead to anxiety or depression.

Modern life is hugely time poor, though, meaning that our social lives can easily become eroded. With networking websites, we have found a way to have our cake and eat it - a method of gaining more friends in less time and with a minimum of effort and cost.

Although these sites are happily used by extroverts, they also have a special appeal for introverts who might normally struggle in social situations.

Communication online is a lot less daunting than face-to-face, where we can be judged on appearance, confidence and charisma, rather than just choice of words.

Virtual vs real-world friends: getting the balance right

Sounds perfect? And so it is, but only when this virtual society is not allowed to replace the real thing.

Website socialising is most beneficial if it is used as an 'as well as', rather than an 'instead of', when it comes to actual friendships.

Genuine relationships have a 'flesh and blood' aspect to them, meaning they can be every bit as irritating, frustrating, upsetting and annoying as they are rewarding and therapeutic. They're never risk-free and they do involve emotional and physical effort and investment.

By contrast, virtual or online relationships tend to be very one-dimensional, which is why they are evaluated by quantity rather than quality, with people boasting about how many 'friends' they have, rather than how good those friendships are.

But being popular online is not the same thing as being popular and sociable in the real world. And although internet interactions can help someone with low social skills to feel more confident about communicating, it is only really helpful as a stepping stone to getting out there and doing the real thing face-to-face.

If a website socialiser is using their online exchanges to help avoid the need for real-life friendships, then - like swapping a varied healthy diet for a life of fast food - there is a risk of the soul becoming malnourished.

For a quick-hit, anytime chat, it's good fun, but if it starts to use time you'd normally put aside for traditional socialising, you need a swift rethink of your values.

Limitations and risks of virtual relationships

The emphasis on written dialogue can make these websites a joy to use, but they can also prevent users from honing their face-to-face social skills.

Words give us only a limited measure of the person we're communicating with. Vocal tone adds some of the emotion and emphasis, and body language gives it congruence, impact and authenticity (or lack of it).

In the absence of these giveaways, we miss out on someone's true personality. After all, if we wanted to lie to someone, we'd probably choose to do it in writing, rather than face-to-face.

Unlike traditional friendships, which usually involve meeting up in groups and creating opportunities for our friends to meet and socialise with each other, dialogues with online friends tend to be private.

Virtual friendships offer little, if any, opportunity for friend-sharing with our family and friends in the real world, and can run the risk of being isolating.

Communicating privately with 'unshared' friends may even cause jealousy or resentment among our real friends and family, especially if our time with them is limited by long working hours or other commitments.

Because of the lack of commitment or complexity of virtual friendships, there's a danger that they may be used as an idealised retreat when things are tough in the real world.

While being able to discuss problems with a 'friend' who isn't involved in our situation can be therapeutic and rewarding, it should never prevent us dealing with our real problems.

Virtual friends are rarely genuine 'friends in need'. It's the real friends who are vital in our lives for back-up, loyalty and genuine affection.

back to top

Sign up to our monthly Better Health newsletter to receive updates on our latest health and wellbeing updates.

Sign up to newsletter

Ask the expert

Got a question?
Our team of medical experts are ready to help.