Are online friendships “real” friendships? It’s reasonable to suspect that online friendships would share some benefits of face-to-face friendships but not others, and several studies have put that idea to the test.
One study published last year by researchers from UC San Diego, Northeastern University, Harvard University, Yale University and … Facebook suggests that online social activity, like face-to-face interactions, is associated with better health and longer life expectancy.
It found that several types of social media activity were linked to reduced mortality. The strongest correlation was for activities like posting photos that were related to in-person social interactions. Activities unrelated to in-person interactions, like messaging, were associated with mortality non-linearly – that is, people who engaged in these activities in moderation were the least likely to die, with people who engaged the most and least frequently having higher mortality.
Online friendships can also provide a lifeline for people who struggle to find social support in real life. Different studies have found that online friendships have advantages for LGBT, deaf and hard of hearing, and lonely and socially anxious youth.
However, all adolescents can benefit from online social interactions. For example, one study found that online conversations contributed to teens’ sense of self-disclosure and belonging.
Still, it’s not good news across the board about online interactions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prioritizing online friendships and spending more time communicating online has been linked to higher risk for internet addiction.
Altogether, these findings suggest that a healthy balance between online and offline social interactions is optimal. In the words of the authors who published the study looking at deaf and hard of hearing (“D/HH”) students’ online friendships:
A combination of the online and offline friendship seems to be the most important friendship type for both hearing and D/HH students and it is worthwhile to encourage this friendship type.
Image: Flickr/Meal Makeover Moms