Young adults who use social media such as Facebook or Twitter more frequently or for longer periods of time are more likely to feel alone, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) reported this week in a new study.
In fact, according to BBC News, the authors surveyed more than 1,700 Americans between the ages of 17 and 32, and found that those using social media for more than two hours per day were twice as likely to report experiencing feelings of social isolation than those spending a maximum of 30 minutes per day on such websites as Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, and Tumblr.
The results, which were measured using a validated assessment tool known as the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System, also revealed that individuals who made at least 58 visits to various social media platforms per week were three times more likely to have feelings of perceived social isolation than peers who do did less than 10 times per week.
“This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults,” lead author Dr. Brian A. Primack, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health and the assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, explained in a statement. “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,” Dr. Primack added. His team’s findings were published Tuesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
So what causes these social media users to feel isolated?
The link between frequent, prolonged social media use and feelings of isolation persisted even when the researchers controlled for a variety of social and demographic factors, and they have a number of theories as to why spending more time on Twitter and Facebook might make younger adults feel alone.
One theory is that social media use displaces traditional interactions, meaning that those who spend more time online have less time for socializing in the real world, they explained. It could also be that seeing things such as photos where friends are having a good time without them could make that person feel excluded from the group.
Another possibility is that consuming highly idealized versions of their friends’ lives on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or similar platforms could make people envious and convince them that the rest of the world is leading happier, more successful lives than they are. Whatever the root cause, the authors said that their findings indicate that social media is not a cure-all to reduce perceived social isolation in individuals feeling as those they lack strong social relationships.
“We do not yet know which came first – the social media use or the perceived social isolation,” said senior author Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at Pitt and chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UMPC Children’s Hospital.
“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,” she added.
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