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Employee Well-Being

Creating Community in a Digital Era

Sally Spencer-Thomas | March 29, 2018

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I grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood in a suburban town in Connecticut. When my family first moved in, there was a cul-de-sac at the end of our road, and all the kids used to ride bikes and play ball in the street. My parents lived there almost 40 years—and so did most of the other families.

We would have caroling parties where children and adults would crowd around a piano and belt out our favorite holiday tunes. One of our neighbors, a professional opera singer, would sing "O Holy Night" as the closing song every year in a way that sent shivers down our spines. The older kids would babysit the younger ones, and we would all wait at the bus stop together every morning. Hardly anyone moved into or out of that neighborhood in the 20 years I lived there, and now my parents, who currently live in Colorado, still travel back to spend time with their friends as often as they can.

Developing and Maintaining Relationships

Today, I have more than 2,500 Facebook friends and upward of 7,000 followers on Twitter—quite a different metric for measuring relationships—and I wonder about how the changes in social relationships are affecting the generation after mine. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Facebook. I am an admitted addict and am very grateful that this tool has let me reconnect with friends across my lifespan and across the world in ways that letter writing and phone calls could not before. However, I am keenly aware that, as the breadth of our relationships spreads, the depth often suffers.

Social-psychology research indicates that the number of meaningful ties we have in our relationships is shrinking and is putting us at risk as we weather the storms of life. Miller McPherson, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and research professor of sociology at Duke University, published a very compelling study, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades," in the American Sociological Review on June 1, 2006, that showed strong evidence that our true social networks are shrinking. He and his colleagues wanted to know how many confidants, or people we could share anything with, changed over time.

They compared the number of confidants people said they had in 1985 and in 2004. They found that in 1985, the model respondent had at least three confidants—at least three close connections with whom he or she could share any and all personal struggles, secrets, and sorrows. Maybe it was his or her coach, uncle, and best friend or his or her mentor, spouse, and mother. By 2004, that number had shrunk to just one. Usually, that person was their intimate partner/spouse.

With just one person with whom to share our innermost thoughts, we are highly vulnerable should anything happen to that relationship, such as death, divorce, etc. Professor McPherson and his team also found that young, white, and educated men were most likely to have lost those social connections.

What was the major change that influenced our connectivity between 1985 and 2004? Obviously, the Internet. In a nanosecond, I can get online and read what my third-grade classmate had for brunch, but I am less likely to find time for true social connectedness—face to face, sharing vulnerabilities, and genuine support. It's likely that our true social connectedness may continue to decline as our screen time increases. In 2005, only 5 percent of Americans said they participated in social media. Today, about 70 percent say they do.

Those Left Out

In many ways, this group of young, white, and educated men are feeling more and more isolated, as the April 17, 2011, Newsweek article by Rick Marin, "Can Manhood Survive the Recession?," called out the plight of the "Beached White Male" and the crushed expectations they experienced after the recession. Many pushed back at this article and questioned how it could possibly call out sympathy for the most privileged group; however, there is a paradox of privilege, as Thomas Joiner states in his book about the lone wolf syndrome of men, Lonely at the Top, which was published just a couple of months after the Newsweek article. Mr. Joiner argues that a man's fixation with status, material success, and autonomy leads to detachment, neglect of friendships, marriage, and parenting, and ultimately to life-threatening health problems—and all the while during the downward spiral there is very little compassion from the rest of society.

It's not only the men in the middle years that are being affected. An empirical article, "Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S.Adolescents after 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time," published in 2017 by Clinical Psychological Science and authored by Mr. Joiner, Gabrielle N. Martin, Megan L. Rogers, and Jean M. Twenge looked at two massive nationally representative surveys of US adolescents in grades 8 through 12 (N = 506,820) and compared these figures with national statistics on suicide deaths for the ages of 13–18. They found that adolescents' depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015. Their conclusion? Teens who engaged in more hours of screen time, including social media, were more likely to report mental health issues than teens who spent more time engaged in face-to-face connection, athletics, etc. Since 2010, this cohort of teens has spent increasing amounts of time on screen activities and less time away from the screen, which the researchers speculated was accounting for increases in teen depression and suicide.

The Effect of Social Networking on Purpose and Belonging

In the mental health realm, it's important to talk about the many other negative consequences of our virtual social connections. For one, they can reinforce suicidal behavior and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Opportunities for suicide contagion grow when content is easily accessible and difficult to restrict. Cyber suicide occurs when a pact is made among people who meet on the Internet; unlike other suicide pacts that usually involve elderly couples, these Web-based pacts involve increasing numbers of young people.

Suicide chat rooms and "how to" sites also fester, giving suicidal people advice on the best ways to end their lives. Embarrassing or sexual pictures can be used to harass and bully victims. People post misinformation and triggering content that can exacerbate a situation, and trolls—people who anonymously post inflammatory comments to incite reactions—prey on victims who are already vulnerable.

The tragic case of a Florida teen who used a webcam to live stream his suicide as at least 185 people watched shook many of us in the suicide prevention field deeply. It was only after the boy collapsed that someone sought help, but it was too late. There is no doubt that social media and the Internet can generate the wrong kind of purpose and belonging—but these tools can also be used for good. And the volume of all this negativity gets turned up by the exponential power of social media. As the Suicide Prevention Social Media Chat founder Dr. April Foreman stated, "Social media amplifies things. So if something is harmful, social media makes it more harmful."

But the flip side is also true. Resilience and community can also be contagious, and social media can be the vehicle that shares positive messages about hope and recovery. Viral social marketing offers an unparalleled opportunity to expand the reach of positive suicide prevention messages.

Powerful and inspirational stories such as Kevin Hines's survival from his jump from the Golden Gate Bridge can motivate many to proactively take care of their brain health. His BuzzFeed video has millions of views as he shares his tips on coming through the darkness of living with bipolar condition into the light of mental wellness.

Viral marketing uses the power of preexisting social networks to pass along messages, exponentially increasing the communication's contagiousness and ensuring it's reaching the intended audience. In addition, the trustworthiness of the message is enhanced by word-of-mouth connections. We now have the ability to have conversations and distribute resources to people we've never been able to connect to before. Social networking has a direct ability to save lives if leveraged properly. New peer support apps offer a human connection that stands between asking a friend or family member for help and reaching out to a professional. Some peer support apps offer cognitive behavioral techniques that help people rethink their situation. The tools are scalable and accessible in ways professional support is not, but their efficacy needs further evaluation. New apps are constantly being generated to help people build coping strategies, connect with peers, and develop safety plans.

Finally, several of the social media giants are realizing that they can provide an early detection and intervention opportunity to find and support people experiencing suicidality. For example, a research paper by Glen Coppersmith, Mark Dredze, and Craig Harman, titled "Quantifying Mental Health Signals in Twitter" and published by the Human Language Technology Center of Excellence at  Johns Hopkins University analyzed tweets of people who eventually died of suicide and compared them to a control group to determine if there were any differentiators. What they found was that people at risk expressed more emotion, include fewer emoji and emoticons, and use "I" more and "we" less than the control group. The at-risk group also were most likely to tweet between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., indicating that they were experiencing insomnia, which is a known risk factor for suicide.

Knowing that people post concerning suicidal content on social media platforms every day, groups like Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit have developed online processes to help connect people at risk to resources and to help coach concerned friends and family on what to do.


The speed of the information age will continue to expand the way we connect at an exponential rate, so buckle up. There is no going back. Our human brains will not be able to evolve as quickly as the pace of our technological advances. Therefore, we will need to compensate and adapt to the best of our ability and remember that at the heart of our health and well-being lies true social connectedness.

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