It might be called social media, but new research reveals those who use it most are more likely to feel socially isolated.
Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied more than 1,700 young adults who use platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
Those who spent more than two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to have perceived social isolation than those who spent less than 30 minutes on the online channels.
“This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults,” says lead author Dr Brian Primack. “We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together. While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for.”
The findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, raise concern because social isolation has been associated with increased risk for mortality.
“We do not yet know which came first – the social media use or the perceived social isolation,” says senior author Professor Elizabeth Miller. “It’s possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media. Or it could be that their increased use of social media somehow led to feeling isolated from the real world.”
Explaining the feelings
The American researchers have several theories for how increased social media usage can fuel feelings of isolation:
- Social media use displaces more authentic social experiences because the more time a person spends online, the less time there is for real-world interactions.
- Certain characteristics of social media facilitate feelings of being excluded, such as when one sees photos of friends having fun at an event to which they were not invited.
- Exposure to highly idealised representations of peers’ lives on social media sites may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives.
The study’s authors think it’s important doctors urge patients to reduce their usage of social media if symptoms of isolation are obvious.
“The results of this study simply remind us that, on the whole, use of social media tends to be associated with increased social isolation and not decreased social isolation,” says Dr Primack.