Social Connection is a Gateway to Mental and Physical Health – But How Does IT Work Online?


Social Connection is a Gateway to Mental and Physical Health – But How Does IT Work Online?

Functional relationships to friends, family and other loved ones are an important source of mental resilience and wellbeing, as well as physical health. According to research, loneliness and isolation are a connected to increased mortality rates, thereby constituting a severe health risk factor. In terms of mental health, research for instance shows a clear connection between rejection by peers and loneliness and depressed mood during childhood, as well as depressive symptoms also later on in life. On the level of the brain, social exclusion activates the same mechanisms that are involved in the experience of physical pain. In summary, there seems to be a profound link between our connection to others and overall health.

From this perspective, the Internet offers a wonderful way to decrease loneliness and the adverse effects it can have on physical and mental health. However, this digital tool for interaction is still lacking in many things that are needed for deep understanding and connection: feeling of shared context, presence, touch, and most importantly, rich emotion expression. Individuals understand each other’s emotions by modeling the emotions within themselves – experiencing other’s emotions as their own. When emotions are not transmitted, they are not modeled and do not touch us. An environment where you can say anything without properly experiencing the emotional reactions of the receiver of the message is optimal for creating misunderstanding, exclusion and bullying.

According to statistics, at least in Finland the time that people spend interacting with family members and friends is declining as time spent online increases. Could it be that we are exchanging a way of interacting that supports health for something that does not?

This is of course not to say that the Internet automatically leads to bullying and loneliness! There are for instance wonderful online communities with the express purpose of decreasing loneliness and increasing mental health. However, it may be this positive interaction could be made even more powerful through richer emotional connection.

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So what to do? How to increase emotion transmission in digital interaction environments?

Emotional information can be obtained in many ways: with sensors measuring heart rate and skin conductance, by cameras detecting emotions from facial expression. Could increasing the availability of this information lead to better, richer connection during online interaction? Could creating new ways for transmitting emotions make the Internet a more powerful arena for combatting the negative health effects of loneliness and isolation?

What would better emotional connection in our relationships mean for mental and physical health?

Questions like these drive the work of a research group called NEMO Natural emotions in digital interaction, and have led to the creation of Emotion Hack Day, a 24-hour hackathon taking place this year in Helsinki, Montreal and Madrid.

Visit Emotion Hack Day for more info and follow how our community if working to create a more human future for a digital world.


Author: Katri Saarikivi, Team Leader and co-founder of NEMO, PhD student at the Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki.

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