Authors: Negin Nia and Arrthy Thayaparan (Blog Coordinators) || Interviewing: Frances Chen, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of British Columbia
Published: November 26th, 2021
COVID-19 has made our social interactions even more isolated and reliant on technology. This month on Behind the Science, we speak to Frances Chen, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of British Columbia, exploring the intersection of social and health psychology linking our social lives (especially online), mental health and physical health.
Could you describe what you are pursuing in your research?
I'm interested in how we develop and manage our social relationships and how our social lives influence our health. This includes both good effects and bad effects. Good effects include when we're able to receive social support from our loved ones, or when we feel a sense of belonging in our communities. Bad effects could include when we have a conflict with somebody that we care about, or when we feel lonely, socially isolated, or experience social rejection. In my lab, we try to advance scientific understanding of these phenomena.
It is also important to mention that women and men can experience different kinds of challenges when navigating social relationships. Sociocultural norms can play into those different challenges that women and men face, but also biological factors such as how our hormones influence our social behaviour or emotional reactions.
What got you interested in pursuing this research?
There’s a saying, “all research is ME-search.” I would say that's true of me. For as long as I can remember, I've always cared deeply about social connection. I believe it’s a very powerful part of what it means to be a human being. When you have experiences and relationships where you feel seen, accepted, loved, and appreciated, those are incredibly powerful experiences. On the other hand, if you are going through a relationship conflict or a breakup with a romantic partner, if you're feeling socially isolated, or you don’t have social support and a strong social network to lean on, it can feel emotionally devastating. I've personally observed how strongly social connections influence my own health and well-being, and I’ve also observed that in so many other people's lives.
What sparked your interest in women’s health?
The more I look at these questions that I'm pursuing, the more I see that there are both social and cultural factors, and also potentially biological factors, that play into some differences in how women and men experience social relationships. I think it's important to consider those potential differences because if our ultimate goal is to improve the mental health and physical health of people of different sexes and genders, then we need to be aware of these kinds of nuances.
In one line of work in my lab, we are investigating why depression and anxiety tend to be more common experiences for women than men. To investigate this, we are currently running a large-scale prospective study where we're tracking the emotions and social functioning of young women during their teenage years. We're collecting a bunch of different metrics, including data on their changing hormones and social experiences, to help us understand some of these questions around women's mental health better.
What impact do you hope your research will have on today's world and also in the future?
I think that loneliness and social isolation are increasingly common experiences. This may be in part a side effect of globalization. People move around a lot more than they did in the past, which might cause them to uproot themselves from a social community and have to make new connections.
Another factor might be how we increasingly seem to be replacing our in-person face-to-face interactions with interactions on our smartphones and computers. Although technological advances have created opportunities for connections that didn't exist for past generations, they are also a double-edged sword. The COVID-19 pandemic has made many of us realize that these computer-mediated ways of connecting aren’t a perfect replacement for our in-person interactions. In today’s world and into the future, it’ll be increasingly important to ask and seek answers to these questions around how we can kind of manage to stay socially connected, despite these new challenges that we're facing.