Social media: good for one’s health? (Here comes the science part)

‘If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.’ Lord Byron

As someone regularly diverted by the work of Mr Freud (Sigmund, not Matthew!), I often find myself perusing, more widely, research and studies in the field of psychotherapy – you can read into that what you will.

Over the decades since Freud built the concepts of psychoanalysis from Josef Breuer’s foundations, therapists have been focused on the spoken word as the method of communicating with their patients, but this has developed with the evolution of various writing therapies.

My interest in the psychotherapeutic arena is usually fuelled by my love of Contemporary and Modern art but I recently read a study that showed the positive therapeutic value writing can have in the context of emotional trauma cases.

The research, led by University of Texas Department of Psychology, Professor and Chair, Professor James W. Pennebaker, shows that: ‘writing about emotional experiences can have positive effects on physical health, biological activity and behaviours.’

To be specific, the study shows that this process has a beneficial influence on immune function, with the accelerated growth of t-helper cells, and has shown short-term lowering of heart rate.

With this in mind, I started to think about social media as a therapeutic outlet with which to exorcise those demons of the working day and even some of the slightly more personal issues we shoulder.

The way I see it, the social media user takes the role of the patient, while the audience, the ‘collective unknown’ if you will, takes the position of the therapist.

This idea comes from my reading about the work of therapist Dr. Nathan Field who uses email therapy as a way of adding further ‘distance’ to the therapist/patient relationship.

Field explains: ‘Ironically, the therapist’s anonymity and invisibility provide a therapeutic environment.

‘Immensely powerful emotional bonds can arise between strangers whose contact is purely by email… we already know from our own experience how much we can love or hate even the characters in a novel.’

This is an extension of Freud’s ‘blank screen’ technique: a commonly used method in psychotherapy where the therapist remains neutral to allow for the natural transference of feelings and thoughts.

We see email therapy paralleled in blogging and micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter where a sense of distance is created between the user and the audience, often with no ‘real life’ contact ever being made and the ‘therapeutic environment’ being replicated.

In addition, Pennebaker’s research also found: ‘a promising trend suggesting that the more days over which the experiment lapses, the stronger the effects… writing once each week over a month may be more effective than writing four times within a single week.’

Again, this is behaviour demonstrable through the habits of those using social media: a sense of regularity in posting over prolonged periods of time.

Finally, Pennebaker highlights that to ‘actively inhibit thoughts, emotions, or behaviours requires work – physiological work’ and that this inhibition ‘can cause or exacerbate a number of psychosomatic illnesses.’

And we all know what psychosomatic illness means: sick days! So, perhaps better out than in, as they say.

Now, I’m not suggesting that what I have presented above, in terms of my inferences, is conclusive – I’m no psychotherapist after all. In fact, writing therapy is still very much a work in progress within the psychotherapy community.

But wouldn’t it be nice to think that those tweets, blog posts and messages sent through the need to let off steam or act as a personal release actually have a positive effect on us?

Having discussed this issue further with Professor Pennebaker, he makes the valid point that writing for social media and more private writing do indeed differ, describing the former as a sort of ‘theatre’. But he adds that theatre ‘can be emotionally beneficial and can result in the author’s getting social support, praise and validation’, all of which can only have positive, therapeutic outcomes.

He certainly doesn’t rule out the benefits of using social media as a therapeutic channel. Instead, he sort of throws down the gauntlet in a final comment to me, saying: ‘To my knowledge, there has not been a good research study that has made a direct comparison between blogging and private writing. Hopefully one of your readers will take this task on.’

So, any takers?

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