Social isolation is a growing public health concern. In recent years, research has linked social isolation to an increased risk of mortality, and a new study investigates the impact of social media use on perceived social isolation.

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New research shows that the time spent on social media platforms may significantly increase the feeling of being socially isolated.

Previous research has associated loneliness and living alone with an increased risk of mortality. The subjective, self-perceived feeling of isolation has been found to raise the risk of premature death by as much as 26 percent.

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania – published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine – investigates the effect of social media use on feelings of social isolation.

The research team was led by Dr. Brian A. Primack, Ph.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, and assistant vice chancellor for health and society in the University of Pittsburgh’s Schools of the Health Sciences.

Dr. Primack explains the motivation for the study, saying that “this is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults.”

Primack and team investigated the social media use patterns of 1,787 adults aged between 19 and 32 in the United States. The researchers administered questionnaires enquiring about the frequency and time spent on several social media platforms popular in 2014. These platforms included Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

The scientists relied on the data provided by the participants, as self-reported using the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System tool – a set of measures used to assess the physical, mental, and social well-being of adults and children.

After adjusting for a wide range of social and demographic factors, researchers found that people who used social media for more than 2 hours per day were twice as likely to feel socially isolated compared with those who only used social media for under half an hour every day.

Additionally, study participants who visited social media platforms 58 times a week or more had a threefold increase in the risk of perceived social isolation, compared with those who reported fewer than nine visits per week.

As this is an observational study, it cannot establish causality or explain the reasons behind the association. However, the authors venture some possible explanations.

One such speculation is that time spent on social media simply replaces the time that would otherwise be dedicated to more authentic, face-to-face human interactions.

Another potential explanation is that social media exposure increases feelings of exclusion – for instance, when users see friends having fun at a social event that they did not take part in.

Finally, exposure to social media may also elicit feelings of jealousy, often triggered by the way that other users portray themselves in an idealized light.

“We do not yet know which came first – the social media use or the perceived social isolation,” says senior author Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh and chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It is 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, [or] 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.”

The study’s lead author comments on the findings, acknowledging that more studies are needed to uncover the subtle, individual differences in social media use:

In a large population-based study such as this, we report overall tendencies that may or may not apply to each individual. I do not 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.”

Dr. Brian A. Primack

Learn how loneliness and social isolation are linked to early mortality.