Facebook and other social media services are all about connecting people, but new research suggests they may be having the opposite effect.
The more time young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to feel isolated, a report from scientists at the University of Pittsburgh reveals. The study of 1,787 US adults ages 19 through 32 found that participants who visited social media services more than two hours a day had twice the odds for "social isolation" compared to their peers who spent less than half an hour on services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Moreover, those who visited social media platforms 58 or more times per week had "about triple the odds of perceived social isolation" than those who visited less than nine times a week.
Social isolation occurs when a person "lacks a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others and fulfilling relationships," according to a news release from the school. Social isolation has in the past been linked to increased risk for mortality.
"This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults," lead author Brian Primack, M.D., Ph.D., director of Pitt's Center for Research on media, technology and health said in a statement. "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."
The results of the study were published Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The researchers said they're not sure yet as to whether social media is causing people's social isolation.
"It's possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media," senior author Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., 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. 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 scientists have a few theories to explain why social media is fueling feelings of isolation. For one, people may be spending so much time on social media that they have less time to get out and do social things in the real world. Further, people might see posts of friends at an event they weren't invited to, and feel left out. Finally, seeing only the most picture-perfect moments in other people's lives "may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives," according to the news release.
The scientists are advising doctors to ask patients about their social media use and encourage them to reduce it if it seems linked to social isolation.