An Unexpected Mental Health Resource: Digital Social Networks
By Carmen E Lefevre, on 1 February 2017
By: Dr. Felix S. Hussenoeder, researcher – psychologist – social marketer
While there is lots of talk about addiction, hate speech or stalking, positive health effects of social network sites (SNSs) are rarely discussed. However, there is a great – and largely untapped– potential of SNSs like facebook to promote mental health. In the following paragraphs, I will outline what makes digital networks so special, how they may help to reduce stress and related problems and what digital health professionals can contribute.
What is so different about digital networks?
Since the beginning of mankind, social relationships have been an essential part of life, helping individuals to gain resources, support and protection. However, there has always been a severe downside: maintaining relationships costs time and effort. Therefore, there seemed to be a limit to the number of relationships an individual is able to maintain – some assume this limit is around 150, also referred to as Dunbar`s number.
This situation completely changed with SNSs since users are now able to build up and maintain much larger networks (up to 5000 connections on facebook). The digital technology enables them to keep updated about their friends and acquaintances almost without any effort, e.g. via an integrated news feed, thereby creating a feeling of proximity where connections are just one click away. This effortlessness facilitates a culture of “friending”, leading to much larger personal networks as compared to pre-SNS times. Moreover, digital networks contain relationships that would not have been maintained if it was not for social media– like casual acquaintances or school buddies. As a consequence, digital networks are more diverse than their offline ancestors, e.g. with regard to geographic location, occupation or age.
Digital networks from a health perspective
We have never been in a situation where so many people had direct access to such a broad and diverse source of knowledge and experience. This is especially important for individuals facing challenges in their lives, like the first-semester students I researched, many of them moving to a new place for the first time. These students were adapting to a new situation and they were experiencing many problems and challenges, e.g. related to lectures, seminars and exams or to finding a room/ apartment. If not solved, these problems can pile up over time and become a source of chronic stress, contributing to psychosomatic ailments from headaches and stomach problems to insomnia and burnout. In this situation, SNSs can function as a coping tool that allows users to request help, support and advice from “experts” in their digital networks. As a result, they can better adapt to student life, keep down stress levels and, to some degree, prevent psychosomatic problems. In addition, SNSs also provide an infrastructure that facilitates communication, like a chat function, and helps users to find experts for their requests, e.g. via profile information. Therefore, SNSs can be used as a highly efficient coping tool in terms of information seeking, especially, when this information is in the form of personal judgement, recommendations or advice (of course, SNSs can also be the source of stress; however, this is not the focus of this article).
How can digital health professionals help to improve SNS-based coping?
Once a user has formulated a problem – like “Where do I find cheap housing options in my region?” or “How do I best prepare for a certain exam” – how can s/he best utilize their digital network to find solutions? I believe the answer lies in combining our health psychology expertise with applied programming skills. For example, we could design applications that help users to localize and access expertise. Spontaneously, two ideas come to my mind:
- An application that visualizes certain areas of expertise that are important to specific users – like “studying law” or “moving to Lisboa” – and connects them with experts in their networks. For example, this could look like geographic map with knowledge areas as countries and connections as cities.
- An application that allows users to post questions with specific tag words and directly refers them to the inboxes of connections with the requested expertise.
While these are just two examples, I believe there are plenty of useful applications waiting to be programmed, and we are just at the beginning of utilizing SNSs for health promotion. With growing connectivity worldwide on the one hand and increasing complexity of modern life on the other, there is not only great potential but also growing demand for new digital solutions. Let` s get started!
BIO: Felix Hussenoeder is a psychologist, social researcher and social marketer with great interest in public health, environmental protection and the meaning of digital technology. He has researched digital networks, social capital and the health benefits and risks of social media use for his thesis. He is currently working as a freelancer in Germany. You can also find him at LinkedIn.