By Sally Stich
It used to be that when you wanted to talk to your friend, you walked (or drove) over to her house, sat down and had a long chat, or maybe you gave her a call. Now, you're probably more likely to email her, go on Facebook or send a text. According to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of women use email and 61 percent use the Internet on a typical day. Over 12 million women between the ages of 35 and 44 use Facebook- and the number of U.S. women users age 55 and older has grown a staggering 482.4 percent from February 2009 to January 2010, according to Inside Network's Inside Facebook Gold. Women, the gatekeepers of relationships, are now the mistresses of social media, but that raises the question: Are these digital connections with kids, parents, friends and colleagues as meaningful as the old-fashioned face-to-face kind?
Deep human connections, say experts, aren't something that merely enhance our lives; they're a biological imperative. "The species simply could not survive without us recognizing our dependence on one another," says Kimberly Merenkov, MD, attending psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Interdependence implies a value in what an individual needs as well as what the community needs. We can't live fully without direct human contact, nor can we live up to our talents if all we do is comply with the group. Connections with others develop our sensitivity to the human race as a whole," she says. So what draws us to create bonds with others? Photo: Thinkstock
At the heart of all deep relationships, says Gregory Jantz, PhD, a psychologist in Seattle, is attraction: to someone's friendliness, appearance, humor, values and even gratitude. (Interestingly, say experts, gratitude is one of the most attractive qualities of all because it is linked to joy-and joyous people tend to be magnetic.)
The attraction leads us to pursue the person in the first place, but time becomes the glue. "Deep relationships do not form instantaneously," says Jonathan Ellerby, PhD, author of Inspiration Deficit Disorder, a guide to overcoming stress habits and bad relationships. "They take time, which involves shared experiences (school, work, tough times, children) that lead to shared memories." How often you spend time with someone is critical, since it's over time that you learn about and come to appreciate each other-your vulnerabilities and strengths, likes and dislikes. The goal: to accept and appreciate someone as is; to be accepted and appreciated as is.
Still, our connections serve an infinitely more personal purpose: to know ourselves, who we are at our core, what we believe to be most important. "Through relationships, we learn that we are not the center of the universe, that we do not always get the responses we expect, that we can be there for someone else even when it's not convenient. We learn to deal with frustration, and we develop tolerance and the ability to love with more acceptance of our differences," says Dr. Merenkov. These are not things you learn flying solo. What's more, studies show that people with a good support system tend to be less stressed, have lower blood pressure and age more healthfully.
The biggest benefit of connecting face-to-face, as you may imagine, is that you can reach out and touch the other person. "Research shows that touch offers less ambiguity than other ways of communicating emotions," says Jason Marsh, editor of the Greater Good magazine published by the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. Why? Because your brain recognizes the difference in message between words and touch. "Touch automatically tells the brain that you are not alone," says James Coan, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. "It conveys that someone is there to share the load." In-person interaction also gives you the ability to see visual cues, like your friend's facial expressions, and hear her tone of voice.
The Times, They are A-Changin'No matter how much we used to rely on face time to forge deep bonds, the new reality is this: With working parents, geographic distance and ultra-complicated lives the norm, social media can fill a void. And according to Jeff Hancock, PhD, director of graduate studies in the Department of Communications at Cornell University, it is effective. "Allowing people to stay in touch in so many ways can strengthen our ability to have close relationships," he says. Photo: Laura Moss
True, say other experts, but there are no studies yet that prove that connecting through electronic media will ever be a satisfactory replacement. "As humans we've adapted to interacting with each other person-to-person in order to survive," says Dr. Coan. "We've yet to study how we'll adapt to a life built mostly on electronic interaction."
What experts do agree on is that social media allow people who can't otherwise see a loved one on a regular basis to stay in contact.
Anna Klenman, 53, of Sherman Oaks, California, says social media have been a godsend for keeping up with her 28-year-old son, who is an actor in another city. "We are connected by Facebook, email and webcam," she says. The webcam even allows her son to test a scene on her, and she can give immediate feedback."I know what he's up to and he knows what his mom thinks of his work," she says.
Others use electronic media for getting through rough patches. For Kara Jones, 39, of Vachon Island, Washington, a critical personal lesson-that she could survive the stillbirth of her son after a normal pregnancy-came from an online stranger-turned-friend. "Friends and family tried to help, but our relationships had changed in the face of grief," she says. "Most didn't know how to deal with the situation." A search on the Internet led Kara to an article written by a woman who'd been through a similar experience. The article was signed with an email address, so Kara took a chance and sent her a note. "Here was someone willing to go to the heart of the matter with me in as much or as little detail as I needed. There was no one in my immediate world who could connect with me on that level of grief and love." Eleven years later, the two are still friends.
Social media can also create new friends through shared interests. Online gaming brought together the Big Fish Babes, a group of nine women ages 50 to 65 who were part of Big Fish Games's Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate game forum three years ago. The women originally chatted about game tips, but when one of them mentioned something deeply personal about her marriage, it was as if the gates to intimacy opened. "We're an unlikely group, and we certainly never would have met had it not been for our shared interest in the game," says Big Fish Babe Lisa Berry, 50, of Melbourne Beach, Florida. "But now we share pretty much everything-the good and the bad. I had an illness where the treatment was worse than the disease, and I don't know that I would have made it without these women and their support." The friendships remain deep and they "talk" daily.
Blogging can be another way to connect. A shared passion became the foundation of a cross-country friendship among four women with decorating blogs. Though located in different parts of the country-two in the New York area, one in Washington, DC, and the other in New Orleans-they discovered one another's blogs, began commenting on each other's work and eventually became friends. "Because we're posting pictures of our homes, we really feel like we know one another-as though we could walk into one another's houses and already know our way around," says Valorie Hart, 61, a New Orleans-based stylist and writer of the blog VisualVamp.blogspot.com. "We're all different ages and come from different parts of the country, but the common bond of decor erased all cultural barriers."
Still, there's no denying the drawbacks of technological relationships-images can be distorted, and words on a screen can be misinterpreted. But Dr. Hancock insists these are minor hurdles. "Ultimately it's words, not gestures or tone, that force us to express ourselves thoughtfully and explicitly," he says. Marsh, however, disagrees: "So many cues go into conveying an emotional message. The more tools you have, the deeper the connection you can forge."
Another problem: Electronic interaction isn't always immediate or well focused. It can take days to reply to an email, and everyone knows how easy it is to multitask- responding to a message while also talking on the phone or doing something else. Face to face, you'd never deliberately divert your focus. And there is such a thing as being too connected. "Being reachable 24/7 leaves little time for introspection or the chance to learn about yourself," says Marsh. It also can lead to a sense of selfimportance, and can disrupt your ability to focus since you're constantly being interrupted.
The Future RealityRealistically, no one has the time to only interact face-to-face these days, nor do we need to, say experts. "Electronic media are a distinct means of connection, with their own place and value," says Dr. Jantz. And they're better than not connecting at all-or infrequently. The best forms of electronic media to strengthen your connection? Skype, webcams or smartphones, say experts. "Short of touch, you are able to experience all the cues the other person sends out," says Marsh. Photo: Thinkstock
Ask any grandparent whose grandkids live out of state and she'll probably agree. "There is such joy in being able to see our three grown kids and four grandkids in their own environment with a webcam," says Clare Bills, 59, of Ames, Iowa. "Our Kansas grandson showed us his four-foot-high roller coaster made of Lego bricks. We show the grandkids our puppy, whom they miss." Better yet, she adds, it's much easier to understand them when she can see them. On the phone, they often don't hold the receiver up to their face, and they don't know how to end a conversation, making closure awkward. Trendspotters report that smartphones, which offer a video component, will be our primary gadget for social connections in the coming years. "We could even have access to virtual touch," says Marsh.
Until then, there isn't a proven substitute for personal contact. Cases in point: Grieving mother Kara Jones and her online friend, as well as the Big Fish Babes and the four decorating bloggers, eventually felt compelled to meet in person, deepening their relationships. "No question, social media can enhance relationships," says Dr. Ellerby, "but ultimately, no amount of texting, blogging or Facebook is as satisfying as a walk in the park with a good friend." Why? Because it's simply our nature.Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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