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Face-to-Face Social Contact Reduces Risk of Depression

Face-to-face contact trumps Facebook, phone, and email for lowering depression.

metodika komownikatsia, labeled for reuse
Source: metodika komownikatsia, labeled for reuse

How often do you socialize with family, friends, and loved ones face to face? Like most people, I find myself communicating more and more via text message and Facebook than any other method of social interaction. My phone calls and email correspondence with friends and family have decreased over the past few years, and I see them less and less. Would you say the same about your social network?

In his 1971 book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler warned of the detrimental impact on the psychological state of individuals and entire societies based on "too much change in too short a period of time." I think most of us are in a state of Future Shock.

Clearly, we have not evolved the capabilities to have the majority of our social networking occur through digital technologies. How could our minds and bodies possibly adapt at a neurobiological level to all of the technological changes that have occurred in the past two decades?

Remember: Text messaging, email, and the internet were first commercialized for use in 1995. Facebook was founded in 2004. The iPhone was introduced in 2007. All of these inventions forever changed the way we socialize and have reduced face-to-face social contact.

Face-to-Face Socializing Reduces Depression Risks

What are the long-term consequences of limited face-to-face social contact on our mental health? A new study suggests that the mental health benefits of regular face-to-face social interactions—especially among older adults—can reduce the risk of depression.

The October 2015 study, "Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression Among Older Adults? Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey," was published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The researchers found that having limited face-to-face social contact nearly doubles someone's risk of having depression. Study participants who met in person regularly with family and friends were less likely to report symptoms of depression, compared with participants who emailed or spoke on the telephone.

In a press release, Alan Teo, M.D., M.S., lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, said:

"Research has long-supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people's mental health. But this is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression. We found that all forms of socialization aren't equal. Phone calls and digital communication, with friends or family members, do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression."

For this study, Teo and colleagues assessed more than 11,000 adults aged 50 and older in the United States. They examined the frequency of in-person, telephone, and written social contact, including email. Then they looked at the risk of depression symptoms two years later, after adjusting for potential confounding factors including health status, how close people lived from family, and pre-existing depression.

This finding makes a strong case for the importance of face-to-face socializing. Study participants who met with family and friends face to face at least three times a week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms (6.5 percent) two years later. Participants who met up just once every few months, or less frequently, had an 11.5 percent chance of depressive symptoms compared with those who had even less frequent social contact.

Conclusion: Benefits of Face-to-Face Socializing With Family Increase As We Age

The study also found that when comparing face-to-face social contact between family members vs. friends that the link to reduced depression changes as we get older. Interestingly, the researchers found that among adults aged 50 to 69, frequent face-to-face contact with friends reduced subsequent depression. However, people over 70 years of age and older benefited more from in-person contact with children and other family members.

This makes sense in terms of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. According to Erikson, from age 65 to death, the psychosocial focus is on ego integrity vs. despair and a reflection on life. In many ways, it seems logical that our evolutionary biology would make the bonds with family stronger in the final stages of life.

Hopefully, knowing this will serve as a reminder to all of us, myself included, to make an extra effort to show up in person and to maintain face-to-face connections with loved ones and relatives who are older than us. This is especially important for any family members past 70 years of age.

That reminds me, I'm going to visit my mom soon. It's been too long.

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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