Technologically happy, or better off in the slow lane?

This is one of those cases where – unlike watching The Mighty Swindon Town FC, say – I have no particular privileged insight gained from years of experience, but Rich assures me that This Is OK and that concern about quality or expertise never kept a good blogger down (and anyway, as my boss said to me in a meeting the other day: “for heaven’s sake, get on with it Phil”).

Several interesting articles caught my eye in the last couple of days, each bringing a different perspective on the link between social networking technology and happiness/mental health. First off is this from TIME magazine, reporting research by BCS – the British Chartered Institute of IT – which finds that, irrespective of income:

IT has an enabling and empowering role in people’s lives, by increasing their sense of freedom and control, which has a positive impact on well-being or happiness.

Obviously the fact that this was commissioned by an IT institute means we should tread a little carefully, but on the other hand the findings are based on secondary analysis of a large-scale (N=35,000) global survey, and I guess the results have some intuitive appeal. One of the report authors goes on to say:

Whether young or old, we’re all social beings, we all have a need for the things IT access facilitates.

Hmmm… Next up was something I heard on the Today programme this morning (also reported here): the Mental Health Foundation suggesting that higher than expected levels of loneliness amongst younger people are partly down to the double-edged sword of technology. As the BBC News piece about the research has it:

Nearly a third of young people questioned for the report said they spent too much time communicating with friends and families online when they should see them in person.
Whether this has any genuine biological impact is unclear, but it has been suggested that physical presence is needed for the hormone oxytocin to be released – believed to be the chemical process underpinning the relationship between social contact and healthy hearts.

As I suggested earlier, I have absolutely no expert opinion on whether this is valid or not and would be interested to hear what people out there who are better placed than me to comment (not hard) think.

Perhaps part of the answer comes in the content of a third article, a neat piece by John Rentoul, writing in The Independent, who is precise enough to distinguish between the function of something like Twitter as “a news service” – a means of conveying information quickly and efficiently – and its role as a social networking platform.

But whilst I agree with Rentoul about the utility of the ‘rolling commentary’ function of social networking (leaving aside the fact that an RSS aggregator does similarly well), and its value in terms of ‘connectedness’ (but really only if you have the kind of job where the bigger your network the better – where you want or need to be ‘connected’ to as many of the right people as possible – a political journalist, for example), I struggle to agree with him when he says:

…the social interaction of Twitter is just as valuable as that of real life. […] Twitter social life is faster and more gregarious than face-to-face. It doesn’t have the depth, of course, but it avoids the downsides of “real interaction” – pretending we’re not in; not answering the phone.

A position exaggerated for comic effect, no doubt, but still… seriously? Laying my cards on the table: I really struggle to see how, unless used very sparingly indeed or as ‘a tool of the trade’ (and therefore not also part of life outside of work) heavy use of social networking technology doesn’t have a negative effect on a different form of connectedness: with the people, places, thoughts and feelings of the here and now. And if there’s one thing that’s well-established as a key ingredient in promoting happiness and mental well-being, it’s exactly that kind of ‘mindful presence’ in the world around us, isn’t it?


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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