The interconnected web of our friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances might dominate our lives more than we know. They’ve always been there, making up our social support systems. But now, thanks largely to the burgeoning popularity of online social networks like Facebook, researchers are discovering what a powerful influence our connections — both online and off — really have over our lives, USA Today reports. Because online social networks are much more clearly defined than offline connections, they have been a boon to researchers. And studies are finding that despite dire predictions from naysayers who warned that spending too much time online would be damaging to real-life relationships, the opposite appears to be true. The findings, trickling in from early research, suggest health and psychological benefits for those who "friend" and are "friended." But as with all new media, critics say it’s much too soon to know about all the possible long-term effects online social networking might have–from growing obesity and musculoskeletal problems to loss of privacy and overwhelming commercialism. For the most part, being part of a social network is good for you, research suggests. But whether they’re face-to-face or virtual, social networks can exert a powerful influence on human behavior, shaping everything from finances to the way people vote…

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