One of the ironies of overusing social media is that instead of making someone feel more socially connected, the latest research suggests that heavy use of social media can exacerbate feelings of social isolation. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, foresaw this phenomenon a few years ago, and wrote about it in her seminal book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
According to a new national analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, young adults in the U.S. who use social media more frequently than their peers report higher levels of perceived social isolation. The March 2017 report was published yesterday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
This research was led by Brian Primack, director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health (CRMTH). For this study, Primack and colleagues sampled 1,787 U.S. adults ranging from ages 19 to 32 using questionnaires to determine patterns of daily and weekly social media use. The researchers gauged participants' perceived social isolation using an assessment tool called “Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System.”
Study participants were asked about their time and frequency spent using 11 of the most popular social media platforms at the time the study began in 2014. These included: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.
The researchers found that participants who used social media for more than two hours a day had twice the odds for reporting perceived social isolation than their peers who spent less than 30 minutes on social media each day.
Notably, participants who visited various social media platforms 58 or more times per week were three times more likely to experience perceived social isolation than those who visited social media sites less than nine times per week.
In a statement to UPMC, Primack described the pertinence of this research:
"This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults. 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."
It’s noteworthy to point out that in a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario that reminds us that correlation does not mean causation, it was impossible for the researchers to identify if excessive social media use or perceived social isolation came first.
According to senior author Elizabeth Miller, professor of pediatrics at Pitt and chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC:
"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.”
Three Ways Social Media Can Exacerbate Perceived Social Isolation by Primack et al.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Primack and Miller encourage doctors and health practitioners to ask patients of all ages about their social media use and to counsel them on the benefits of reducing screen time if it seems linked to perceived social isolation. That being said, they are quick to point out that much more research is necessary to fully understand all the nuances—and potential pros and cons—surrounding social media use.
Perceived Social Isolation Increases Stress Hormones and Inflammation
Human beings are inherently social creatures. Research continues to grow that most of us need to maintain robust face-to-face social connectivity in order to optimize our physical and psychological well-being throughout our lifespan. In recent years, countless studies have reported on the various benefits of face-to-face social contact and the detriments of perceived social isolation.
For example, a November 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that perceived social isolation causes physiological changes that can make someone sick or die prematurely. In fact, the researchers found that for older adults, perceived social isolation can increase the risk of premature death by 14 percent.
This study was led by John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago. Cacioppo is a world-renowned social psychologist and neuroscientist who studies the biological effects of loneliness in humans and animals. In previous research, Cacioppo found that social isolation is linked to dramatic increases in the stress hormone cortisol, hardening of the arteries (which leads to high blood pressure), inflammation in the body, and can diminish executive function, learning, and memory.
John Cacioppo emphasizes that solitude is not necessarily bad for your health or a cause for loneliness. Rather, it’s the subjective sense of feeling lonely or perceived social isolation that is most disruptive. Obviously, many people choose to spend a lot of time alone and aren’t necessarily lonely. Along these lines, many people who use social media regularly do not suffer from perceived social isolation.
That being said, an October 2015 study found that the mental health benefits of regular face-to-face social interactions can reduce someone’s risk of depression. The Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) researchers found that having limited face-to-face social contact nearly doubles someone's risk of having depression.
Interestingly, study participants who made the effort to regularly connect with family and friends in person were much less likely to report symptoms of depression, when compared with participants who only texted, emailed, or spoke to friends and family on the telephone.
Research suggests that relying too much on social media and online social networks for a sense of connectedness can backfire. Most of us need to engage in face-to-face contact and nourish intimate, close-knit human bonds to tap into biological systems that have evolved for millennia to preserve our quality of life as well as our psychological and physical well-being. Brian Primack concluded:
"People interact with each other over social media in many different ways. 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."
Clearly, in the proper dosage, social media and online social networks have the power to strengthen human bonds and make people feel connected. Finding a "tonic level" for your personal social media use appears to be the key to reaping the benefits of online social networks without risking the negative psychological and physical repercussions of overusing social media and the vacuum of perceived social isolation.