Social media may not fill the ‘social void’

The more time a young adult spends using social media, the more likely they are to feel socially isolated, say researchers.

The findings of a new study suggest that use of social media doesn’t present a panacea to help reduce perceived social isolation—when a person lacks a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others, and fulfilling relationships. Past studies have shown that social isolation is associated with an increased risk for mortality.

“This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults,” says Brian A. Primack,  professor of medicine, pediatrics, and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalize 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.”

Feeling lonely

In 2014, Primack and colleagues sampled 1,787 US adults ages 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine time and frequency of social media use by asking about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.

Scientists measured participants’ perceived social isolation using a validated assessment tool called the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System.

Depression more likely for social media addicts

Even when the researchers controlled for a variety of social and demographic factors, participants who used social media more than two hours a day had twice the odds for perceived social isolation than their peers who spent less than half an hour on social media each day. Further, participants who visited various social media platforms 58 or more times per week had about triple the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.

“We do not yet know which came first—the social media use or the perceived social isolation,” says senior author Elizabeth Miller, professor of pediatrics. “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. It also could be a combination of both. But even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations.”

3 theories about this link

The researchers have several theories for how increased use of social media could fuel feelings of social isolation, including:

  • 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 idealized 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.

Some caveats

The researchers encourage doctors to ask patients about their social media use and counsel them in reducing that use if it seems linked to symptoms of social isolation. However, much more study is needed to understand nuances around social media use.

Using lots of social media accounts linked to anxiety

“People interact with each other over social media in many different ways,” says Primack. “In a large population-based study such as this, we report overall tendencies that may or may not apply to each individual.

“I don’t doubt that some people using certain platforms in specific ways may find comfort and social connectedness via social media relationships. However, 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.”

The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: University of Pittsburgh