Why More Social Media Usage Might Actually Lead To Loneliness

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.

Many of us probably unwind from a long day by cycling through our social media apps, scrolling through Facebook, checking on Twitter, and keeping up with friends on Instagram. You'd think that the more time we spend staying connected, the less lonely we would feel, but researchers are finding social media might not actually be that social.

According to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, more social media usage is actually associated with increased feelings of social isolation. In other words, the more time you spend looking at your smartphone, the lonelier you're likely to feel.

For the study, researchers looked at 1,787 young adults in the U.S. aged 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine how often and how long they used social media. Researchers asked them about 11 platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.

Even when controlling social and demographic factors, researchers found that those who used social media for more than two hours a day were twice as likely to feel isolated and lonely as those who only used social media for less than half an hour. And those who checked in on their social media platforms 58 times a week were three times as likely to feel lonely than those who checked in fewer than 9 times per week.

"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."

The study is the latest to examine the effect that social media has on our mental health. The research confirms something most of us know: Social media can lead to FOMO, and watching other people's lives online is no substitute for IRL interactions.

The big hurdle that researchers found during the study, however, is determining what came first: The sense of loneliness, or the constant social media usage.

"We do not yet know which came first — the social media use or the perceived social isolation," senior author Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at Pitt, said in a statement. "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."

Either way, Miller said, even if these young adults were already lonely beforehand, keeping up on social media didn't make it any better.

While Primack said that more research is needed to understand why social media could lead to, or exacerbate, feelings of isolation, he and his team have a few theories. For one thing, looking at your phone all day can leave less time for IRL face time with your friends, and secondly, scrolling through Instagram and seeing your friends hanging out without you could make you feel excluded. Plus, seeing everyone share the best parts of their lives is bound to make you feel like yours is pretty boring in comparison.

It's important to note, of course, that all of this is pretty subjective. At the end of the day, Snapchat might be the only way you can keep up with your long distance bestie, and maybe you actually use Twitter to interact with the people you otherwise wouldn't get to talk to, which makes you feel less alone. Social media might not be a substitute for face-to-face interactions, but it's still a solid way to keep in touch with your loved ones.