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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]