“The Internet is distracting and isolating and diminishes our capacity for focused work.”

“The Internet is transformative and connecting and is making us steadily smarter.”

The conversation about the Internet’s mental and social impact often feels like a debate between these two opposite extremes. That’s why it’s refreshing to read something like Clare Allan’s recent piece for The Guardian, For people with mental health issues the cloak of cyberspace has advantages, which is unusual in its even-handed assessment off the mental health impact of life online. (Just see my blog post earlier this week, offering 4 ways the Internet can strengthen your relationships, in response to a post that only focused on the negatives.)

Allan writes that…

…in the age of blogging, Facebook and Twitter, of teleworking and internet shopping, of Second Life, chatrooms and so on, it’s not hard to see how our practical need for face-to-face contact has declined dramatically. But what about our emotional and physical needs?

Research has shown that contact with others stimulates the production of the hormone neuropeptide oxytocin. While loneliness increases the perception of stress, oxytocin has the opposite effect. Oxytocin, which has been called the “affiliation” hormone, is believed to underpin the link between social contact and healthy hearts. Because technology does not provide physical, face-to-face contact it does not produce this physical effect.

But the internet can also be used to reduce social isolation….And the internet can facilitate physical interactions. According to Sally Russell, director of parenting website Netmums.com, which offers help to people with postnatal depression, 10,000 people meet face-to-face each month as a result of the website. It’s a fine example of the internet’s potential to counter isolation by linking people together.

Allan’s article left me hungry to find research on the impact of online connection on oxytocin production. Nothing so far but with the growing interest in the neurological effects of Internet usage I hope we’ll see people looking for the good — like whether the Internet can boost oxytocin — as well as the bad.