This reminds me of a hypothesis David Finkelhor put forward in his talk on "juvenoia" last fall: "Several recent studies have found that digital communication can lead to more or better friendships online and off, greater honesty, faster intimacy in relationships and an increased sense of belonging, in addition to practical social benefits like an expanded circle for networking," the Wall Street Journal reports. Dr. Finkelhor's hypothesis was that the Internet is a risk-reducer more than a risk-amplifier. He said in his talk that he had “this intuition that we’re going to look back on this period as one of major and widespread amelioration of social problems affecting children and families" – certainly not because of the Internet, but because so many social-problem indicators – including bullying and child sexual exploitation – are significantly down in the very period that the Web was invented and experienced its fastest growth (see the bulleted list of nine social indicators in my post about his talk). [Finkelhor is the director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center.]
Then there's the research on positive indicators emerging. Dr. Larry Rosen's team at California State University, Dominguez Hills, zoomed on empathy in online communication, and – despite all the negative hype about cruelty stemming from anonymity and disinhibition – they found that "users expressed a significant amount of empathy online," the Journal reports, "and that the more time college students spent on Facebook, the more empathy they expressed online and in real life."
There actually has been a good deal of writing in recent years about the health benefits of social networks (offline all along and now online as well, as the online part is mostly a reflection of offline social networks). For example, two years ago I wrote about this "guild effect," picking up on what I'd learned from educators about the support and back-up power of guilds in World of Warcraft, and linking to reports on a then-just-published book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.