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When avatars meet for lunch

Science validates the notion that people with a strong social network live longer. It's not yet clear if the benefits apply to those who turn to the Internet for friendship.

September 16, 2010|Meghan Daum

Friendship is surely the most revered of social institutions. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously referred to a friend as "the masterpiece of nature." Jane Austen called friendship "the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love." And as Marlene Dietrich pointed out, "It's the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter."

Finally, though, gooey sentiment has been backed up by science. In an analysis of data from 148 studies about the connection between health and social interactions, researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that people with strong social networks live longer than those without. Among their conclusions was that social isolation is as much a risk factor for mortality as more frequently cited scourges like smoking and obesity.

When I read The Times' article about this study on Monday, I was struck less by the data than by the accompanying photograph. It showed mostly middle-aged and senior folks raising their hands in apparent euphoria as they enjoyed some unspecified outdoor community activity against a backdrop of trail-covered hillsides. The implication, obviously, was that this was the sort of activity that keeps you alive and kicking longer than, say, sitting on the couch all day watching "Judge Judy."

That's basic logic. Friends stimulate the brain and force us to get out of the house. They jolt us awake at 4 a.m. with their weepy phone calls, and apply balm to our wounded hearts in the form of copious post-breakup cocktails. But in recent years, the definition of "friend" has broadened somewhat. And not necessarily in a way that makes us live longer.

You know what I'm talking about: the Facebook "friends" that can number into the thousands; the Twitter followers we barrage with every half-baked thought; the Internet commenters whom we engage in vigorous political discussions but still know only as MasterDebater2010.

Do those relationships help us live longer? Will today's 20-somethings ever age into the kind of 60- and 70-somethings who meet for a brisk morning hike and then throw their arms in the air? Or will they leave that to their avatars? Moreover, if the avatar enjoys a healthy social network of other avatars, will its user live longer?

I put these questions to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young and lead author of the longevity analysis. She explained, unsurprisingly, that data were not yet available for post-Internet generations because most of the studies in the analysis looked at subjects who were already at least middle-age. But she did point out that sociology research has lately pointed to an uptick in the number of people who identity themselves as lonely.

"In spite of these social technologies, people are reporting more isolation," said Holt-Lunstat. "So you have to think about quality rather than quantity when you think of relationships in terms of health. Plus, people with ambivalent relationships — some people call these 'frenemies' — tend to have more depression, higher blood pressure and more cardiovascular problems."

It might be tempting to see this research as yet another dispatch from the Department of No Duh. Bummer friends make life a bummer. And no one ever said Facebook was a substitute for a good dinner party (well, someone probably did; but on second thought, those of us who even have begun to prefer a Twitter blast to a two-way phone call have to wonder whether we're setting ourselves up for big trouble down the road).

Everyone from the most arcane intellectual to the most blockheaded adolescent extols the virtues of message boards and newsgroups that cater to esoteric interests, or of live video feeds that allow the whole world to watch. It's great to deconstruct "Ulysses" with hardcore Joycians wherever they are. It can be fun to play Scrabble with someone in New Zealand.

But just as helping your virtual neighbor harvest his virtual crop on Farmville doesn't quite count as community involvement, I'm willing to bet joining a newsgroup can't be the same as joining in on a hike. Then again, I guess we won't know that definitively for another couple of decades. So I'm guessing you'll still be texting and driving in front of me on the freeway tonight.

One thing's for sure, though: If MasterDebater2010 starts calling at 4 in the morning, don't be flattered. Be afraid.

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