Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are Social Networks Good for Your Health?

illustration, man sitting at computer, Killorin Wellness Consulting
As someone who spends a good part of every day on one social network or another, I often wonder if it’s time well spent. I mean, is there any real, lasting benefit to all the hours devoted to tweeting, liking, and plussing? I’m not talking about the superficial benefits, such as getting a few more visits to my blog or adding another Twitter follower. 

There’s got to be more to it than just numbers, right? At the risk of getting too philosophical here, I’m wondering if social networks provide me with something much more intangible, but at the same time, more important.

I have a feeling many of you are thinking the same thing –

“What am I gaining, really, in return for all the hours I spend on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and the rest?”

As with anything else, if you become obsessed and let it take over your life, a social network could have a negative impact on your overall wellness. Today, though, I'm focusing on the things that I've found to be beneficial. I thought about what I've gained in terms of wellness since getting active on Twitter three years ago. Here's what I came up with - I managed to compile a list of reasons why I believe social networks might enhance our wellness. Keep in mind, I was too lazy to research the literature in order to back up these assertions with scientific evidence. The list below is simply this man’s observations based on my experience. Read on and see if you agree.

Seven Reasons Social Networks are Healthy

1.) Motivation – There’s no better motivator than telling your online friends about a goal that you set for yourself. Having someone follow up on that promise you made to exercise or lose that extra ten pounds is a great benefit. In the coaching world they call that being “accountable” to someone, and to me it’s one of the best things about social networks.

2.) Inspiration – I find it’s inspiring to have online friends from all over the world, each with their own unique interests and lifestyle. Hearing about their struggles or successes helps me put into perspective some of the issues I’m dealing with. When one of my internet friends shares an experience she had at home or at her job, I can sometimes relate it to something similar going on in my life. In a situation like that, the network could be considered a coping tool that I use to deal with a challenging issue. 

3.) Intellectual Stimulation – I learn something everyday from my social network friends. I’m lucky to be following people who consistently share fascinating articles on science, literature, and the arts, so it keeps my brain engaged when I’m not chuckling at LOLCats. It also encourages me to learn something new when I know other people are interested in the same thing. 

4.) Goal-setting – This ties into reason number one, but it bears repeating – enlist your social network in helping support you in reaching a health goal. You might even find others who have the same goal and you can set up some sort of friendly competition. This is one of the reasons mobile wellness apps are so popular now. They enable us to compare our activities and how far along we are on our plan with our friends via smartphones.

5.) Social Support – One of the keys to wellness is having a network of people to support you when times aren’t so great. Of course, in a perfect world everyone would have a supportive family or circle of friends to call on when traumatic life event occurs, but everyone isn't that lucky. Sometimes, just having an internet friend to talk to can help someone get over a rough patch. I think this is the single greatest wellness benefit of Facebook – it enables individuals who are experiencing a personal hardship of some kind to instantly connect with family or friends. Just sharing your problems with others and knowing someone cares can provide a psychological boost.

6.) Stress Management – Can Twitter help to relieve stress? I’m sure there’s a researcher somewhere who’s trying to answer that question, but based on my experience I think it might. I think it’s fairly well established that a good stress relief technique is to have a diversion. In other words, get your mind off the issue that’s causing the stress. Maybe this is where LOLCats come in, I don’t know. I did, however, just read a study that claimed looking at cute animal pics might be psychologically beneficial. So, yeah, maybe spending a few minutes sharing a laugh with online friends is good for you.  

7.) Health Education – Social networks can be a great source of health news and information. You can get the latest articles on wellness, fitness, nutrition , and just about any other health topic from reputable sources by subscribing to their feeds. I can say from experience that I’ve learned about breaking health stories on Twitter before I saw them on the TV news. Follow these Twitter accounts to get daily health info in your stream -  @nytimeswell (New York Times), @CDC_eHealth (Centers for Disease Control), @HealthyLiving (Huffington Post - Healthy Living blog), @healthfinder (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services).

There you have it - my short list of reasons why I think social networks can enhance our wellness. I know this list is incomplete, so let me know what I neglected to mention. Has a social network helped you improve your wellness in some way?

image credit: © venimo - Fotolia.com

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