U.S. and U.K.'s Individuality Is Depressing, but Social Nets May Help

Western society's habits, according to a new survey, are resulting in overly individualistic behavior that makes us depressed. But before that news makes you sad, a different piece of research says the social networking boom may be able to help.


The Northwestern University study examined depression and anxiety in different nations around the world, comparing in particular individualistic nations like those in the West, and collectivist nations like China. Interestingly the U.K. came top in individualism (that stiff upper lip perhaps?), followed by the U.S., Australia, and Western Europe. And though you may think that's a good thing, it comes at a price: Around one in ten Brits are sufferers of depression and anxiety, compared to one in twelve in Europe and a mere one in 25 in China. Though there's likely to be a genetic component in action, it seems likely that Western individualism is causing stress and sadness.

So what's to blame? Is it our social habits? The change in society that means kids no longer play together in the park? Or is it the rise in mobile phones, Internet use and social networking—in some minds evil technology that are mainly a solo habit and which must be inherently bad for you?

Well, according to the American Life project and Pew Internet, it's not the latter. Mobile phone users have a 12% larger circle of close friends than people who don't use mobiles (are there any of them left, anyway?). People who engage in life-sharing activities via systems like Facebook or Twitter, posting status updates or pics of their activities have 9% bigger friendship groups than those who avoid social nets. And though there's a knock-on negative effect of less interactivity with your physical neighbors, there's an unexpected diversity bonus: Social networkers are much more likely to be friends with people from different backgrounds. With the social networking phenomenon currently exploding in popularity, it might be a good sign for our society.

As is usual when a transformational technology arrives and starts impacting on society, there's inevitable hand-wringing and calls for a return to the old status quo from some quarters (remember how TV was supposed to kill real person-to-person communication?). But as these studies show, the effects of our technology are both positive and negative, and most likely highly unpredictable on a individual basis (individuals as in people, and as in different technologies.) And the upshot of that conclusion is simple: Don't Panic. Enjoy the opportunities our technological world has to offer: There's bound to be another surprising development just over the horizon.

[Via The New York Times, the Telegraph]

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  • Chris Reich

    Nonsense. Another silly social study with a book, likely, at the end of the rainbow---or at least another grant.

    Link the depression to selfishness. Wow is me, I don't have an I-Phony yet and my friends cluster isn't as big as yours on FaceSchmook.

    We live with abundance to excess yet many lead empty lives.

    Get over yourself. Do something interesting and bold at work today. Anything. Start a movement for improvement. And when no one else joins, see yourself as a standout, not a loner. Then ask yourself if the time spent on Facebook or Twitter has any value to your own enrichment. Maybe, just maybe, reading a book might add something to your being.

    Chris Reich

  • Mary Jo BehrmanGartner

    I think our virtual lives enhance our day-to-day and give us amazing opportunities we've never had before, but they're no substitute for physical togetherness, conversation, or the gravity of eye-contact.
    I think we all need to be very specific in our word choices in these matters. There's a big difference between connection and friendship, engagement and interaction. I'm an avid social media user, with Facebook 'friends' and Twitter 'followers' that span the globe. I connect with them daily and remain in-touch with people who I otherwise would not (as these tool negate many time, money and proximity constraints). Further, it's empowering and somewhat cathartic to broadcast my daily ideas, emotions, and activities out to this crowd--to create some public or shared record of my life. That said, nothing replaces face-to-face, physical interactions and exchanges with others.
    I agree with Aly-Khan Satchu's comments that social media is a great tool, with its real-time ability to broadcast and basically democratic status for users. Still, let's not confuse this general community building with the type of friendship, togetherness, or connectedness that neutralizes personal isolation and depression. Dimi Moore's Twitter fans may have convinced a woman not to kill herself (as the legend suggests), but it will be those closest to her that keep her going day to day.

    Mary Jo Behrman Gartner
    Emerging Media Director

  • Aly-Khan Satchu

    These new EcoSystems like Facebook, Twitter and Google are very recent and disjunctive Phenomena. They very evidently have knitted the World a great deal tighter. Thats a Fact. These reports to which You refer are still catching the Phenomenon, where Western Societies had fractured. Generations had very much gone their separate ways. Family relationships had fractured and atomised into smaller Units. I think these new Platforms are reversing that Trend. I surmise these reports are signalling a Pre and Post and the inflexion Point is somewhere in between.

    I see these New Ecosystems like the Net was to the Lilliputians. The Political Consequence of lone Voices and Citizens being able know to conjoin and scale into a Roar is only now being felt. Look at Iran, Moldova, the response of Citizens [compared to Governments] of late around Natural Disasters. These are all important signifiers as to the Step Change that is occurring in the Affairs of [Wo]Man.

    Aly-Khan Satchu
    Twitter alykhansatchu