As online communities grow, offline communities shrink, and we need the latter for psychological health

There’s a short New York Times op-ed by Charles Blow out June 11th about the importance of “real live” social connectedness for healthy psychological development, and in turn about the longitudinal changes that have made such social connections less common. The op-ed itself isn’t that interesting, but it points the reader to some scientific research and reports that are, including two studies by Pew documenting the increase in (live) social isolation alongside the increase in Internet and social networking websites (1, 2), and one study by researchers at U. Michigan showing a drop in empathy among college students increasing most dramatically as of the year 2000.

This isn’t convincing proof to me of Blow’s main argument (that we’ll be healthier with more live, in person social connections). After all, the two Pew studies are simply documenting the decreasing social connectedness that has been going on for a long time. Consider Robert Putnam’s famous *Bowling Alone*, which documented America’s decreasing social connectedness since the 1950s. A lot of reasonable and compelling arguments could be made that the Internet is actually providing a solution to the societal problem of growing individualism and shrinking community that long preceded it: the Internet (and associated social networking tools) allows people to connect once again and to the kinds of people we’d really want to connect to in a way you can’t when you’re largely constrained by social proximity as in the non-virtual world (for an extended argument on this point, see Seth Godin’s book Tribes). The study by U. Mich. researchers lends support to the idea that growing virtual connectedness might be associated with less psychological health, given the year of the most profound drop in empathy (2000) and its coincidental timing with the rise of virtual social networks. But that could easily be a chance correlation or just indicate biases in the study authors’ own measurement standards from one time to the other.

All that said, the growth of such movements like jellies and coworking, but also many other movements in the urban/mobile/anonymous worlds many of us live in to increase live social connectedness (meetups, barcamps, reading groups, etc.) suggests, anecdotally at least, that physical human connections are essential to psychological well-being. And this isn’t news to psychologists. Harry Harlow’s famous research on Rhesus monkeys demonstrated relatively unambiguously the need for physical connectedness to something even slightly nurturing. Jim Coan and colleagues more recent research (here’s the friendlier New York Times version) on the decreased stress response that comes from merely holding a loved one’s hand, and John Cacioppo’s ongoing work on the association between loneliness and physiological health (e.g., here) provide more compelling examples.

Whether we realize it or not, most of us need real-world physical connectedness for both psychological and physical well being. In my view that’s no small part of the reason coworking spaces are popping up all over the place serving the independent worker community.

One thought on “As online communities grow, offline communities shrink, and we need the latter for psychological health

  • 12.06.2010 at 12:39

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