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Face-to-Face Trumps Facebook in Quelling Depression

New research will transform the way you think about face time and your mood.

Alberto Guglielmi/Getty Images
Alberto Guglielmi/Getty Images,

by Janice Holly Booth

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Technology has revolutionized the ways in which we connect, but is all this extra contact actually doing anything for our mental health? The surprising answer was revealed in a new study led by Alan Teo, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University. Teo’s team discovered that regular face-to-face interactions are powerful medicine in the battle to prevent depression, compared to other modes of contact such as email or telephone. The benefits of hugging remained intact even years later, according to the findings published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Phone calls and digital communication with loved ones do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression

Alan Teo, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University

“Research has long supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people’s mental health. But this is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression. We found that all forms of socialization aren’t equal. Phone calls and digital communication with loved ones and friends or family members do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression,” says Teo, whose study focused on average Americans over 50, not those who suffer from depression. Because of this, he says, “the findings have relevance for everyone.”

Studying more than 11,000 Americans, researchers looked at the frequency of in-person, telephone and written social contact, including email. Then, they looked at the risk of depression symptoms two years later, adjusting for factors like health history, proximity to family and pre-existing depression.

Having only a little face-to-face social contact nearly doubles your risk of having depression two years later, the study found. The frequency of phone conversations or written contact had no effect on depression, a result that surprised Teo. “I expected a weaker effect for telephone,” he says, “that it would offer some protection for depression. I did not expect that there would be no effect for email or written contact

In another surprising twist, the people you’re face-to-face with mattered too. Among adults aged 50-69, frequent in-person contact with friends reduced subsequent depression. However, adults 70 and older derived the most benefit from contact with children or other family members.

Why the shift? “The meaning people derive from social relationships changes over their life course,” explains Teo. It’s also possible that as adult children age, they value their parents in a way they didn’t when they were young. “My relationship with my own father has increased in value,” says Teo. “When I was younger, I definitely didn’t mind living far away from him and staying in touch every once in a while, but now I spend as much time as I can, trying to bond with my father.”

Teo believes we should all rethink our social strategy. “I can’t think of anything more common-sense that people could incorporate into their life. It’s not a new skill you have to learn, or something that requires a visit to the doctor’s office. You’re just essentially adding to your weekly routine face-to-face visits.” And not just to prevent depression. “It’s also completely relevant for people who don’t have any depression history. We can reduce their risk in the future.”

Creating social contact “is a two-way street,” says Teo. “It’s terribly important and it sends a message that [no matter what age] we can make sure to reach out to our older family and friends.”