Social Web sites can chill friendships, lead to poor health

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Too much time spent making “virtual” friends online can freeze out close “real” friendships that do matter, and that may not be good for a person’s health, says a Purdue University communication expert.

“Reconnecting with college or high school buddies is fine, but too much time spent on these virtual friendships can take away from close, personal relationships that can be gauged by whether you are close enough to someone to allow them refrigerator rights — free reign of the contents of your refrigerator in your home,” says Glenn Sparks, professor of communication and co-author of “Refrigerator Rights: Our Crucial Need for Close Connection.” “Research shows the lack of refrigerator rights relationships are harmful to a person’s physical and emotional health because of depression and anxiety.”

In the last five years the use of social technologies, such as Second Life and Facebook, has exploded and there is no evidence it will slow down, Sparks says.

“People feel the harmful effects of social isolation so they have a greater need to connect to other people, and this drives the use of electronic media technologies,” Sparks says. “This is a paradox, because while these technologies may yield some benefits, they may also have simultaneous drawbacks that actually lead us away from close relationships. The more time we invest online, the more time it takes away from our prime relationship time of face-to-face interactions.”

In addition to this mass media influence, geography also is a contributing factor to social isolation.

“America has changed so fundamentally, especially in the rates we move away from our families,” says Will Miller, “Refrigerator Rights” co-author, psychotherapist and campus minister at Purdue. “Because a high percentage of people are leading lives with few refrigerator rights, it is crucial that they try to build a new family in their communities through neighborhoods, churches, community organizations or schools.”

The September publication of “Refrigerator Rights” marks the book’s third edition. This edition also has a study guide that is designed for use by church, family and professional groups.

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