From Friendster to MySpace, from Facebook to Twitter — when social networking sites popped on to the scene most people believed it would allow them to become, well, more social.
And although we were using our keyboards to communicate with each other and quickly got used to the idea of having virtual conversations, many of us believed those virtual conversations would eventually continue offline and our Facebook friends would potentially become our actual friends.
In short, many of us thought social networking would somehow impact our social lives in the real world or at least give them a slight boost.
And for some that was the case.
Social networking actually did allow people to connect with old friends, establish new ones and take those relationships offline, but for the majority of us, social media has only caused more isolation and allowed many to be content with communicating solely through their computers instead of going to visit someone or having a day out with them.
1 billion users
Recently, Facebook announced it has over 1 billion active users, and if you consider the other millions of people using other social media pages like Twitter and Google Plus, it’s safe to say interacting with people through modern technology is an accepted form of communication.
In fact for many people, virtual communication is actually preferred because it's faster, more immediate and allows you to feel connected to a circle of people without ever having to leave your home, but now researchers are finding this growing amount of isolation through social media can actually become a health detriment.
According to researchers at Brigham Young University, having a low amount of physical social interaction could be as harmful to your health as smoking cigarettes or over-indulging in alcohol. More specifically, researchers said being an extreme homebody and cutting yourself off from your buddies has the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“The modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships,” said the study authors.
"Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. The idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognized by health organizations and the public.”
In their research, scientists looked at 148 different studies to gauge how often people interacted with others and how that interaction or lack of it affected their health throughout their lives.
The results showed those who were continually social and interacted with people away from their computers and mobile devices, were able to extend their lives considerably.
“People with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships,” said the authors.
They also said that not being social and locking yourself indoors should be discussed among the other established contributors to dying prematurely.
But how does one use social media less and get outside and connect with their actual friends more?
Many would say the first step is to dramatically lessen your Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus use, since the longer and more frequently these sites are used, the harder it will be to break away from them and go back to the traditional forms of communication.
But as many people can tell you, namely some of our readers, deactivating your Facebook account isn’t as easy as one might think.
“I have been trying to deactivate my account several times in the past month,” wrote Patricia of Minnetonka, Minn. in a ConsumerAffairs posting.
“When I get to the end to deactivate Facebook, it requires me to put the password in and every time I did, Facebook says that it’s the wrong password. So of course I carefully retype my password again and again, still it’s the wrong password. That is just wrong that Facebook can do that.”
Mona of Eunice, La. also had problems trying to close her Facebook account, and after she thought it was closed, she found out it was still being used.
“I closed my Facebook account in February,” she wrote. “Now I’m hearing that there’s a fake Facebook page using my info trying to scam people. Facebook is doing nothing. This is a serious matter. Someone is using my personal info and Facebook seems to think this is no big deal.”
But what is a big deal, say researchers, is the fact that using social media too much also leads to other problems like weight gain and even having a proper amount of self-control.
According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, those who used their Facebook pages to stay in touch with close friends, had a higher body mass index than those people who didn’t.
And those same people who lacked the self-control to stay off Facebook also lacked self-control when it came to purchasing things, most likely online, and they also had more debt.
In the Brigham Young University study, which is now published in the recent edition of Plos Medicine, researchers said health professionals should really speak more about the connection between physical interaction and good health and the topic should be discussed just as much as smoking, lack of exercise and obesity.
“Physicians, health professionals, educators and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality,” said the Brigham Young researchers.