Real Online Relationships Don’t Require Real People

With Facebook halfway towards its mission of 1 billion users, the term “friend” has undergone something of a renovation. That person online whom you’ve never met, let alone spoken with? He or she is your friend. They may even be your best friend. And it’s in this evolving world of social networking that relationships, and even intimacy, are taking on new meaning, complete with an entirely new set of rules and precautions.


Psychologists, media, and academics have begun studying this phenomenon more closely of late. It started a couple of years ago with a fascinating New York Times article about “digital intimacy.” The article deals primarily with the transparency of Facebook and how it reveals certain personality patterns of its users. With that veil of secrecy removed, it’s led other people to analyze the changing nature of our relationships. An article last year in UCLA Magazine analyzed the merits of “virtual intimacy,” which by then had evolved into the need to find a certain level of emotional nurturing through our online relationships.

But what many of these online relationships have over our real-world ones is the greater possibility for exaggeration, fantasy, and even outright fraud. The relationships may be real, but the intentions of the people involved in them may not be. This fascinating phenomenon may be best demonstrated in the upcoming documentary film Catfish.  Slated to open in select theaters in September, the film profiles photographer Nev Schulman (one of the film’s co-directors is Nev’s brother, Ariel). While the film chronicles the burgeoning relationship between Nev and a women he meets through Facebook, it takes a dramatic turn the moment Schulman tries to pierce the fourth wall and make this virtual relationship more tangible and real.

The result is a profound and compelling work of cinema that just may be the best documentary film of 2010. But perhaps more importantly, it’s an intriguing document that shows modern man’s need to seek and maybe even exaggerate the levels of intimacy we share with strangers online. All in the name of meeting certain emotional prerequisites. And Schulman isn’t alone.

This need to find connection online has opened the door for a number of online predators looking to exploit people financially or emotionally. Those dangers have inspired a new set of rules of interaction dealing with everything from pre-teen browsing to online dating. But it’s with dating that we're seeing the greatest rise in online fraud. According to Action Fraud, the national fraud reporting center in the UK, this past summer saw an almost six-fold increase in the number of reports of “romance fraud.” In fact, this summer has seen the media report a number of high-profile online “romance scams.”

These cases tell us that, even if these relationships aren’t real, the emotional benefits derived from them certainly are. Some would even say this happens at the expense of our real-world relationships. And in the end, a tweet from a stranger may actually make us feel just as elated as a hug from a friend.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.