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Reduced Psychiatric Symptoms among Veterans Associated with More In-Person Social Contact but Not More Facebook Contact


BACKGROUND:
The benefits of social relationships for psychological well-being and mental health are well-documented, but it isn't known if social contact through social media is as beneficial as face-to-face contact. This study sought to determine whether social contact on Facebook—or in-person—is associated with a lower risk of screening positive for psychiatric disorders or suicidality in Veterans. The study cohort comprised 587 Veterans who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan since 2001. Participants were recruited via Facebook ads before completing an online survey between January and March 2017. Investigators assessed the frequency of in-person and Facebook social contact, as well as probable psychiatric disorders (i.e., PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse) and suicidality. Covariates included socio-demographics, frequency of social contact, social media platforms used, reasons for using these platforms, and interest in online health-related interventions.

FINDINGS:

  • Although Veterans who frequently use Facebook also are typically social in their offline life, it is their offline (in-person) social interaction – not their social contact on Facebook – that is associated with reduced psychiatric symptoms.
  • More frequent in-person social interaction was associated with significantly decreased risk of symptoms of major depression and PTSD, compared with contact every few weeks or less. In contrast, increased frequency of social interaction on Facebook had no associations with mental health outcomes.
  • Neither social contact on Facebook nor in-person contact was associated with suicidality.

IMPLICATIONS:

  • These results suggest that "face-to-face" time may matter more than "Facebook" for Veterans trying to harness the mental health-promoting benefits of social contact with friends and family.

LIMITATIONS:

  • All associations are cross-sectional and based on self-report measures.
  • Study findings are based on a convenience sample of Facebook users who responded to Facebook ads, potentially leading to selection bias.
  • This study examined just one aspect of social contact (frequency), whereas other aspects related to the quality of social contact bear examination.

AUTHOR/FUNDING INFORMATION:
Drs. Teo and Saha are part of HSR&D's Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care (CIVIC), Portland, Oregon. Dr. Teo is supported by an HSR&D Career Development Award.


PubMed Logo Teo A, Chan B, Saha S, and Nicolaidis C. Frequency of Social Contact In-Person vs. on Facebook: An Examination of Associations with Psychiatric Symptoms in Military Veterans. Journal of Affective Disorders. January 15, 2019;243:375-80.

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What are HSR&D Publication Briefs?

HSR&D requires notification by HSR&D-funded investigators about all articles accepted for publication. These journal articles are reviewed by HSR&D and publication briefs or summaries are written for a select number of articles that are then forwarded to VHA Central Office leadership to keep them informed about important findings or information. Articles to be summarized are selected by HSR&D based on timeliness of the findings, interest of leadership, or potential impact on the organization. Publication briefs are written for only a small number of HSR&D published articles. Visit the HSR&D citations database for a complete listing of HSR&D articles and presentations.