Centuries ago, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that the best friendships are founded on a “shared life.” This meant more than just having common interests. Aristotle believed that, in our closest friendships, we view our friends as extensions of ourselves. We not only share our leisure time, ideas, and feelings with them – we share a part of us. This mutual exchange was the key to eudaimonia: true, fulfilling happiness.
How might this philosophy translate into the modern age? Nowadays, we have social media, instant messaging, online communities, and webcams to connect ourselves with others. And we use those tools. A LOT. So that begs the question: can our online friendships and interactions bring us eudaimonia, too?
First, we need to ask ourselves a few questions:
1. Are there inherent differences between online friendships and real-world friendships?
2. If so, what are those differences?
3. Do those differences make either one “healthier?”
1. Yes there are.
2. There are plenty of them.
3. It’s a little more complicated than that; both can cultivate fulfilling relationships, with unique perks and downsides to each.
A CASE FOR REAL-WORLD FRIENDSHIPS: A PERSON IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS.
Studies have shown that communication is about a lot more than the words we use. While words are necessary to convey complex ideas, most of the meaning in what we say comes from vocal components (like tone and volume) and nonverbal language (like gestures and facial expressions). Our ability to communicate is seriously limited without those additional components. (It’s one of the reasons autism is such a socially impactful disorder – individuals with autism struggle with recognizing and interpreting nonverbal communication.) While online communication software like Skype and TeamSpeak can address some of these factors, a great deal of our online communication still occurs purely through text with all its limitations.
Face-to-face interactions also have a lot occurring at the neurological level. Our brains have various types of neurons that serve different roles: for example, neurons that interpret our five senses (sensory neurons) are different than the ones that allow us to move (motor neurons). But there’s an especially awesome type of neuron called a “mirror neuron.”
Mirror neurons, as their name suggests, reflect the world around us. They allow us to experience what we see. If you see someone being tickled on their leg, your brain will light up as if it’s being tickled in the very same spot. If you see someone reach to grab the remote, your brain will light up as if you’re doing the same thing. Cool, huh? Data suggests that mirror neurons are crucial in our social development – particularly in expressing emotion and empathizing with the emotions of others. In short, having face-to-face interaction is a really important part of learning how to be…well, human.
If we limit ourselves to only online relationships, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to communication, social development, and emotionally connecting with people.
A CASE FOR ONLINE FRIENDSHIPS: YOU’RE MORE “YOU,” AND THAT’S A GOOD THING.
Even with the shortcomings of online communication, it does have its unique benefits. The internet and its communities have a way of grouping people together based on common interests, like clubs on a university campus. People who like the same things tend to like each other, so the internet can make it easier for people to find and engage with friend groups. Moreover, membership and status within a particular group gives us bonds, meaning, and self-esteem. As such, internet communities can help us to feel more connected, give us a sense of purpose, and help us to feel better about ourselves.
The social benefits of online communities don’t stop there. Some research suggests that the interactions we have in the virtual world may be, in fact, more authentic than those in our physical world. In 2001, a social scientist named Adam Joinson found evidence for this. He found that people were more likely to disclose personal information over a computer than they were face to face. He also found that when communicating through computers, people were more likely to disclose personal information over messages than video chat. Basically, his findings suggest that the more “computerized” we are, the more honest we are about ourselves to others – which, studies show, contributes to more positive and satisfying relationships. In Aristotle’s framework, we might say that computer-based interactions allow us to share more of ourselves with our friends.
EITHER WAY, IT’S ABOUT QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY.
Not all friendships are created equal – and our online friendships are no exception. The mental health benefits we receive from our online friendships are much more dependent on quality than quantity. Research has shown that online interactions that we perceive as supportive are associated with tons of positive mental health outcomes, like positive feelings, perceived companionship, and life satisfaction. Some data has demonstrated that this occurs through an enhanced sense of community.
In other words, when we feel supported by our online friends, we feel a greater sense of community, which in turn makes us feel more positive, less lonely, and happier. Simply having a lot of online friends doesn’t have the same effect. It’s about what you do with those friendships.
THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE.
Looking for a TL;DR? Here it is: healthy friendships are about feelings of connectedness. And although real-world and online social connectedness are distinct from one another, both are associated with positive mental health outcomes, like lower depression and greater life satisfaction. They have their individual perks and downsides. While we are biologically geared towards face-to-face interaction, online friendships allow us to feel connectedness with people who aren’t locally accessible. The operative word here is connectedness. If you engage with online friendships, make sure they’re supportive. Make sure you feel cared for, heard, and valued, and provide the same for them. Aristotle tells us our minds are the essence of our lives, and that’s something we can share through just about any medium.
Chelsea Hughes is a doctoral candidate of Counseling Psychology and a veteran volunteer of TakeThis.org. She is a practicing therapist, teacher, and researcher with a knack for combining her professional work with her love of video games and geek culture. She has presented her work on the Psychology of Gaming to universities across the world. In her spare time, you can usually find her strumming her guitar, building her latest cosplay, or murderin’ stuff with her brother on League of Legends.
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