Social media is our touch-point for updates on our friends and family. A quick flick down your Facebook feed or a scroll through your Instagram stories and you’ll know the ins and outs of their days. But new research has found that the more time we spend staying in touch with our social circles virtually, the more socially isolated we feel in real life.
A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh of 1,787 people aged 19-32, found that people who spent two hours on social media a day perceived themselves to be twice as lonely as those who spent just 30 minutes or less online. The number was higher still for anyone who logged in on more than 58 occasions per week. These users felt three times the amount of perceived loneliness.
It may seem obvious that the less time people spend on social media, the more time they may have to spend forging real life connections, and that, therefore, heavy social media users are likely to feel more isolated. But what the study’s authors noted is that whether loneliness triggers social media use, or the other way around, is something of a chicken or egg scenario.
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“We do not yet know which came first-the social media use or the perceived social isolation,” explained senior author Dr Elizabeth Miller.
“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.”
Whichever way round the perception of loneliness occurs, the study does say it’s exacerbated by the use of popular apps like Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit and Tumblr which “may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives.”
"You might watch all these interactions where it seems like everyone else is connecting [and feel excluded]" clarifies Brian Primack, co-author of the study.
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His comments are backed by previous research about Facebook, which suggests regularly checking friends’ profiles causes unrealistic social comparisons which affect our wellbeing.
Seeing as social media is such a new phenomenon, used in the majority by a younger age group, it’s important that research into its effects on mental health continues. Though this study is also a reminder that social media is best used as a facilitator of real-life connections – a way of staying in touch with and arranging plans for outside of the realms of the digital world.