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  • Tulia Fargis

The Science Behind Social Connections: Why In-Person Interaction Still Matters

The world has been slowly transitioning over to a virtual world, and the jury is still out on whether this is a good thing. With this shift, whether it’s your social or work life, people don’t seem to be spending as much time together face to face anymore. While it’s nice to zoom into a meeting from home in your PJs, it begs the question of whether these virtual interactions offer the same benefits as in-person contact.

Social contact is established as an important factor in our mental and physical well-being. Researchers studying loneliness and social contact have found being less socially active was associated with an increase in negative physical and mental health symptoms like increased blood pressure and increased depression and anxiety symptoms. These studies looked at in-person social contact, but it’s unclear if these benefits apply to virtual social contact.

Some scientists have seen that the more people use Facebook, the less satisfied they feel with their lives. Yet other studies saw contradictory results, suggesting that Facebook played an important role in students maintaining social relationships with both current and old friends. Another study saw that when people used Facebook, it increased people’s well-being only when they were communicating with others that they felt close to. Since Facebook may lead to better mental health, this begs the question if these positive benefits are akin to those offered by in-person interactions.

COVID has accelerated a shift to a virtual space, and with this, research looking into social media’s impact on our well-being has become pertinent. In 2019, our team set out to understand if social contact on Facebook could lower the risks of psychiatric symptoms in a way that could match in-person contact. We conducted a study with two research questions in mind. Firstly, we wanted to understand if frequent Facebook users also have frequented in-person social contact and secondly, if Facebook social contact and in-person contact were both similarly associated with lower risk of mental health disorder symptoms. We looked specifically at symptoms of PTSD, depression, alcohol use disorder, and suicidality. With the promising previous research, we thought that both in-person contact and Facebook contact would reduce psychiatric symptoms. Yet what we found surprised us.

In line with what we expected, veterans who used Facebook often were more likely to also socialize in-person, compared to veterans who were not frequent Facebook users. However, unlike what we had hoped, only in-person social contact was associated with a lower risk of screening positive for depression and PTSD, while social contact via Facebook did not lower people’s likelihood of screening positive for Depression and PTSD. These results suggest that people who use Facebook may also be very active in real life, but it’s the in-person interactions that they have, that are protecting them from depressive and PTSD symptoms.

Due to the decline in in-person interactions jumpstarted by the pandemic, our study findings became highly relevant and replicated. One study investigated how depressive symptoms changed depending on the form of contact (in-person versus social media) during the pandemic. Not only did this study find that social media contact did not have as strong as an effect on depressive symptoms as in-person contact did, but also in-person contact decreased after the pandemic.

Similarly, another study extended beyond Facebook and looked at whether video, phone, or text communication had any positive effects on well-being. However, it remains that the benefits of social media to one’s well-being are unparalleled by in-person contact. This suggests a concerning reality where the form of contact that offers us the most benefits, seems to be on the decline. 

As we exist in a time where social media contact is on the rise, it seems all the more imperative to go the extra mile to spend time together in-person. Social media may be helpful for people to stay in contact, but for your health, in-person contact is evidently better. Our health is complicated and requires care in ways we don’t even begin to think about. So do your body a favor and spend more time together in-person. 


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