How social networking keeps people healthy.
"When people feel badly, they have a need to reach out to others because this can help reduce negative emotions and restore a sense of wellbeing," says Eva Buechel, a professor in the business school at the University of South Carolina. "But talking to someone face-to-face or on the phone might feel daunting because people may worry that they are bothering them. Sharing a status update on Facebook or tweet on Twitter allows people to reach out to a large audience in a more undirected manner."
Sharing short messages to an audience on a social network, called microblogging, allows people to reach out without imposing unwanted communication on someone who might feel obligated to respond.
Responses on online social networks are more voluntary. To test whether people are more likely to microblog when they feel socially apprehensive, Buechel asked participants in one group to write about a time when they had no one to talk to at a party, while the control group wrote about office products.
Then she asked the participants who had an online social network account to log in and spend two minutes on their preferred social network. When the time ended, she asked people if they had microblogged.
The results showed that those who had been led to feel socially apprehensive were more likely to microblog.
To explore who is more likely to microblog, Buechel conducted another experiment in which one group of participants watched a clip from the movie "Silence of the Lambs," while the control group watched clips of pictures from space. Then they answered questions about how likely they were to express themselves in three different forms of communication: microblogging, in person or direct message (a private online message to an individual).
Finally, she asked people to answer a series of questions that measured their level of social anxiety in a variety of situations.
Buechel discovered that people who were higher on the social apprehension scale were more likely to microblog after they had experienced negative emotions (as a result of watching the "Silence of The Lambs" clip).
People who were low on the social apprehension scale, however, were more interested in sharing face-to-face or via direct message after watching the scary clip.
"There is a lot of research showing that sharing online is less ideal than having communication in person, but these social networks could be an important communication channel for certain individuals who would otherwise stay isolated," she says.
She acknowledges that there is a danger for those who start to rely on social media as their only form of communication, but when used wisely, microblogging can be a valuable means of buffering negative emotions though social interaction.
What's the significance?
Each of these studies shows just how powerful a tool social media can be to predict changes in our mental health and physical health, and to potentially help improve both.
The conventional wisdom these days is that we should be mindful of how much information we share online because it can be tracked by advertisers or potential employers. While that's certainly true, the explosion of personal data shared online is a boon to researchers, and in turn, for our public health. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are essentially giant study groups that produce reams and reams of raw, real-time data.
What's really exciting here isn't just that researchers can track these changes, but that they can then potentially use this information to enhance our quality of life.
It's not hard to envision a time when researchers use all this data to create applications that can offer up customised recommendations to users about how to stay healthy and happy.
If people nearby are getting sick, an app could suggest you to start taking specific vitamins or other treatments in advance. If there's a specific time of day when you or the people around you tend to be in a bad mood, an app could remind you to take a 10 minute walk to boost your spirit.
Who knows, perhaps researchers could even work together with advertisers one day so that if a user shows signs of depression or mental illness on a social network, a targeted ad might appear on screen for a place where he or she can get treatment or counseling.
If we're going to keep sharing so much personal data online anyway, we might as well at least put it to good use.