The more time you spend staring at your smartphone — scrolling through Facebook, trolling on Twitter, snapping on Snapchat — the lonelier you're prone to feel, researchers say.
A national study on young adults found that frequent use of social media might be associated with increased feelings of isolation. As anyone with FOMO knows, watching other people's digital lives is an imperfect substitute for real-world interactions.
"We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalize us instead of bringing us together," said Brian Primack, the study's lead author and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh.
"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," he said in a press release.
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The study, published Monday in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, is the latest attempt to determine how exactly social media use affects our mental health. In 2014, a research review found that some studies say use of "social networking sites" is associated with low-self esteem, especially in children and adolescents. But others say the opposite is true, with social media boosting self-esteem.
A big challenge for researchers is knowing which came first: The incessant use of social media, or the sense of social isolation, depression or anxiety. Does social media cause us to feel lonely, or does it just exacerbate feelings that we already have?
"It's possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media," Elizabeth Miller, a senior author of Monday's study and a professor of pediatrics at Pitt, said in a statement.
"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," she added.
Image: Nicole Santo/UPMC
For the national study, the Pitt researchers in 2014 sampled nearly 1,800 U.S. adults between the ages of 19 and 32.
Participants filled out questionnaires to determine how often, and for how long, they used what were then the 11 most popular social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
Controlling for a variety of social and demographic factors, researchers still found that participants who used social media more than two hours a day had twice the odds for perceived social isolation than their peers who spent fewer than 30 minutes a day on social media.
Participants who visited various platforms 58 or more times per week had about triple the odds of perceived isolation than people who visited fewer than nine times per week, the study found.
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Primack and his colleagues said much more research is needed to understand the nuances around social media use. But they do have a few theories for how increased social media use could make people feel more socially isolated.
First, you have less time for real-world interactions when you're ogling your iPhone all day. Second, some aspects of social media can make people feel excluded, like seeing all your friends post pictures from a party you didn't know about.
And third, few of us share the ugly, boring, stressful parts of our lives. All those edited, curated pictures of traveling and brunching can spark feelings of envy and a distorted belief that everyone is living their best lives — except for you.
Any of this sound familiar?