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Facebook, Twitter no place for the lonely

Relationships that lack strong connections can result in feelings of detachment and even health problems such as poor sleep and high stress, new research indicates.

When it comes to relationships, quality seems to have a more positive impact on health than quantity. luc legay/Flickr

Relationships that lack strong connections--common when established online through Facebook, Twitter, and the like--can result in feelings of detachment and even health problems such as poor sleep and high stress, new research indicates.

The researchers studied 265 adults ages 19 to 85, and found that those who report being lonely were less apt to manage daily stressors well, had fewer close connections, didn't get adequate sleep, and scored lower on several health scores.

And while the precise role that online social networking plays is not fully understood, this research indicates it doesn't help foster close relationships.

"There is an association between social networks and health, but the precise mechanism is not understood," says communications professor Stacey Passalacqua, who conducted the study with lead author Chris Segrin at the University of Arizona. Details appear in the June issue of Health Communication.

Having a partner did not seem to prevent loneliness in this study, Segrin reports, while having close relationships with friends and family members looked like the most important factor in staving off loneliness.

"The mere presence of a relationship is not always something that is going to lead to you feeling satisfied and supported," he explains.

In a second study, also to be published in Health Communication, Segrin found that people who report being lonely don't enjoy leisure activities or regenerate from sleep at a comparable level as those who do not report being lonely.

Whether these people are actually lonely, depressed, pessimistic, or some combination isn't entirely clear, but the researchers conclude that loneliness is largely a matter of personal perception, and that optimal health is achieved not only through caring for our physical selves, but through fostering and maintaining close relationships with others.

"We know that chronic stressors are very damaging to the human system," Passalacqua says. "Perceptions are all it takes, and when you experience stress, it has a physiological effect on the body. The mind has such a powerful effect on the body and, really, our perceptions are going to shape our world."