From the UK to the US and all the way to India, numerous studies confirm links between social media and loneliness, depression, and anxiety. But how can social media use cause social isolation? Why is social media so bad for our mental health? And does this mean we need to completely cut social media out of our lives?
This post explores why social media and loneliness are linked. We will also look at how to make sure using social media doesn’t leave you feeling isolated or depressed.
How are isolation and social media connected?
Looking at perfect profiles and dream holiday images online often inspires feelings of envy and missing out. As such, it is easy to see how social media and feeling isolated can be connected. We might also see people at an event we didn’t get an invite to and feel lonely. However, when we look at sites like Facebook or Instagram, we only ever see an idealized version of reality.
At an instinctive level, many people probably recognize that social media can have negative effects on our mental health. Our online behavior also massively affects our self-image. However, whilst this is backed up by numerous studies, things could be even worse.
Indeed, a 2018 study found that heavy social media use can actually increase feelings of social isolation by three times. Because isolation is linked with a heightened risk of morbidity, this shows the potentially disastrous effects of excessive social media use.
This study had a sample of 1,787 participants who were aged 19-32. They asked them about their use of the top 11 social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Those that visited social networks more than 58 times every week were three times as likely to feel lonely when compared with people doing so under 9 times a week.
However, this study was unable to conclude whether social isolation was caused by social media use or whether lonely people used social media more.
Is there a causal link between loneliness and social media use?
A study for the University of Pennsylvania found supporting evidence that social media and isolation are linked. They even found evidence of causation rather than just a correlation between feeling lonely and isolated and social media use.
From a sample of 140 undergraduates, participants were asked to either limit or increase their regular social media use. Questionnaires completed before and after the study helped reveal that increases in anxiety, depression, and loneliness stemmed from a fear of missing out, what people call FOMO.
The Pennsylvania study did find that people with higher depression levels were the worst affected. However, ultimately, anyone using social media often also suffered. FOMO leads us to compulsively check for social media updates. It also inhibits our ability to relax and reduces the time we can actually spend socially. In comparison, the participants asked to limit their use of social media reported reduced depression and loneliness.
Because social media use increases our tendency to socially compare and gives us less time for real-life social interactions, reducing our social media use can help us feel less lonely. Distractions can also decrease our enjoyment of present situations, according to a study for the University of British Columbia. However, does this mean we should just stop using social media altogether?
Should we cut social media out of our lives?
Interestingly, the studies above do not conclude that social media use needs to be completely ended. They simply found that our use of social media should be curtailed. In addition, phenomena like the friendship paradox suggest that we should seek to avoid making constant comparisons between ourselves and others if we are to improve our mental wellbeing.
Other studies have also found positive effects of social media in terms of connectedness as we get older. For example, a 2019 study looking at “the association between the use of online social networks sites and perceived social isolation among individuals in the second half of life” in Germany offers some hope.
They found that their sample of people over 40 who were daily users of social media scored lower isolation scores compared to those with no social media use. Another University of Luxembourg study also found potential benefits for clinical practice and advancing health knowledge amongst older adults.
Another study found that adolescents using Instagram actually felt more appreciated. They also felt closer to others thanks to their use of the platform. This suggests that social media use does not have to cause isolation if we focus on quality over quantity. A University of Missouri-Columbia study also backed this up. Indeed, they found social media didn’t always and sometimes didn’t have negative effects on social wellbeing.
Numerous studies have confirmed the link between the use of social media and isolation. Moreover, some studies have even found evidence of a causal relationship between how much time we spend on social media and how isolated we feel. However, social media can make making connections easier. Depending on how we use it, it can also help us feel more connected with others.
The important thing is to avoid the temptation to compare ourselves with others. We should also seek to reduce the overall time we spend using social media platforms. When we do this, we free up more time for real-life interactions and free ourselves from distraction to enjoy present moments of pleasure and joy.
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