While both may be helpful, getting together with friends may do more to lower your risk of depression than getting together with family, a new Oregon Health & Science University study suggests.

“How and with whom a person has social contact affects future risk of depressive symptoms,” wrote the researchers, who noted the “most important finding is that more-frequent in-person contact at baseline was associated with lower probability of depressive symptoms two years later.”

Social contact needs to be in-person to work its magic, the researchers said, since phone and email interactions did nothing to prevent clinical despair among the study participants.

“The take-home message is not that that we should cut out calls on our smart phones or sending emails or messages on social media from our lives,” Dr. Alan Teo, lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry, told Medical Daily. “But the study data do show that there probably isn't a substitute for good, old-fashioned in-person contact when you’re looking at protecting yourself from depression.”

Quality & Quantity

In a previous study, Teo and his colleagues discovered the quality of relationships today predicted the likelihood of depression tomorrow. Specifically, in a group of 5,000 adults (aged 25 or older), people with the lowest quality relationships had more than double the risk of depression compared to people with the best relationships. However, this 2013 study found socially isolated participants who had few interactions with family and friends did not face an increased risk of depression.

With nearly 16 percent of Americans experiencing clinical depression at some point in their lives, Teo and his colleagues decided to examine the nature of social interactions more closely.

They began by collecting data from a health and retirement study involving more than 11,000 adults, age 50 or older. Participants completed questionnaires and in-person interviews, which included a measurement of depressive symptoms using an eight-item scale requiring “yes” or “no” answers to questions like “I felt depressed” and “My sleep was restless.” Next, the researchers tallied each participant’s frequency of in-person, telephone, and written (email) social contact. Finally, they analyzed social contact as it compared to symptoms of depression occurring two years later.

People who met with their family and friends at least three times a week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms two years later, the analysis revealed. Overall, social butterflies had just a 6.5 percent chance of developing symptoms of depression. By comparison, those who got together just once every few months (or even less frequently) had an 11.5 percent chance of becoming depressed.

“Most previous studies — including mine in [2013] — have not been able to specify whether the social contact is occurring in-person or by other means,” Teo said. “By dissecting the mode of social contact, we were able to determine in this study that social isolation in the form of in-person contact significantly increases your risk of depression.”

Teo and his colleagues also discovered not all in-person contact worked equally.

“If frequent contact is also characterized by interpersonal conflict, risk of depressive symptoms is greater rather than less,” wrote the researchers. (Frenemies, be gone! Combative relations, go home!)

Importantly, contact with friends did more to reduce subsequent depression for people between the ages of 50 and 69, whereas the 70 and older crowd benefited more from contact with their children and family.

Next up for Teo will be a study examining social connections among younger people.

“I would like to dig into use of Facebook and other social media in this group and see if there is a role for these newer ways of connecting with people in the younger age groups,” he said.

Source: Teo A, Andrea SB, Valenstein M, et al. Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression Among Older Adults? Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2015.