How Social Media Causes Loneliness

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How Social Media Causes Loneliness

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What is the relation between social media and loneliness? Can social media replace our real-life connections? Find it out here.

About 1 in 3 adults experience loneliness. How many people would that be in your surroundings? Perhaps you are the 1 in 3? Loneliness happens more often than you may think.

In some countries, like Brazil, Turkey and India it is even around 45-50%.

Loneliness is defined as a subjective state of negative feelings about having less social contacts than desired.

Loneliness impacts more than your psychological health. It actually affects your body and physical health. Some facts:

  • Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
  • Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure
  • Loneliness and social isolation are associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Loneliness is worse for you than obesity
social media causes loneliness

During the pandemic, many of us have experienced some level of loneliness.

COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Socializing became near impossible for everyone. People who live alone, are unemployed or disabled were hit the hardest. Lonely people became, unsurprisingly, even lonelier.

The lack of real-life social connections made many of us turn to social media.

Even well before the pandemic, social media was a refuge for many people who find it hard to make real-life connections. But can it cure your loneliness?

Social media – it’s in the name – has the potential to be social indeed.

However, studies show that how you interact with the internet hugely impacts whether it makes you feel more connected or drains you.

So what is the relation between social media and loneliness?

Comparing yourself accentuates loneliness

Comparing yourself to others is nothing new. It has always been around and we do it all the time. I mean, how often have you compared your clothes/shoes/gadgets/hairstyle/nose/success/car/whatever with others?

It is a natural human tendency to make comparisons. And to a certain extent, comparing ourselves to others is useful.

By making comparisons, we form a baseline for where we are in life and where we want to be.

You can easily see it in toddlers, for example: when they see another toddler doing something new, they want to do it too. And even as adults, we compare ourselves against peers, colleagues and people we look up to. Comparisons enable growth.

Comparisons can also be powerful motivators to strive to be better or achieve more.

However, comparisons as a “normal” part of humanity were based on a relatively small circle of people. It is only since recently that we can connect to so many people worldwide, at our fingertips.

For the majority of human history, we would only see the people physically surrounding us. This is natural for our brains.

But in recent decades, the amount of people we see has skyrocketed. We started to be exposed to larger numbers of people through TV, gossip magazines and the internet. Then social media got in the mix as well and now we can see and connect to anyone, anywhere.

Seeing so many people all the time makes our brains work overtime!

Technology has evolved super-fast. There is the questionable and unnatural possibility of comparing yourself with millions of people online.  

But our brains have not kept up with these developments. We don’t have the brain capacity to process so many people and impressions. It can become overwhelming, depressing and alienating.

On top of that you only see happy moments. Most people only share their positive moments on social media, which is the bar you’ll compare yourself with. It will look like everyone else has more fun and friends than you.

Scrolling through social media seems like a way to build and maintain social contact. But in the end, it will mostly just accentuate your feelings of loneliness.

social media loneliness

When social media replaces meaningful connections

Social media can potentially provide a sense of community; but it depends on how you use it.

In a 2016 study they found that people felt better and happier when receiving “targeted” and “composed” content from someone they knew well (for example a comment sent by a close friend).

On the other hand, receiving such content or a “like”, or reading a status update from someone they didn’t know well, did not lead to improved well-being.

Many studies have been conducted on the effects of social media on well-being and mental health.

Some studies find positive results, others negative, which presents a paradox. Social media makes you feel both connected and lonely, happy and sad. How is this possible?

If you dig into it, you’ll see that positive studies often only focus on specific behaviors of social media users. Naturally, you would assume that the more you engage in these social media behaviors, the happier you will be.

However, studies with negative results focus on the overall use of social media.

Turns out that the more you use social media to connect with your network, the less time you spend on real-world connections and communication.

There are studies with evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being.

Any small boost you may get from social media, can’t come close to compensating for the big loss in real-world connections.

Why do we choose our phones over real people, then? Because it’s easy.

Our brains are biased toward activities that cost the least amount of energy in the short term – even if it’s more harmful in the long term.

That’s why we text instead of call and why we like someone’s baby photo instead of going over for a visit.

I assume you know that calling and visiting are way more meaningful and fulfilling than texting and clicking like 😉

This study came to similar conclusions: social media can be effective in tackling loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships or create new meaningful connections.

But when social media is used as a substitute and escape of the real world, feelings of loneliness are increased.

Limiting social media decreases loneliness

Do lonely people use social media more than people with a large real-life social circle? It’s a common assumption that lonely people use social media in more “detrimental” ways than others.

There is actually some truth to this, as research found that lonely people have a preference for using the internet for social interaction.

However, there are also studies that show that limited social media use decreases loneliness (and depression) for everyone – whether you have or don’t have feelings of loneliness to begin with.

At the University of Pennsylvania, a research was done including 143 students. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups for three weeks.

One group was limited to using Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat for 10 minutes per day each (so total 30 minutes per day). The other group would continue their social media habits as usual.

First, some baseline readings were done for a week. These were in several areas of well-being: social support, fear of missing out, loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, autonomy and self-acceptance.

During the three weeks of the experiment, the researchers looked at phone usage data to track how much time was spent using each app per day.

At the end of the trial, the results were clear: The group that spent less time on social media had better mental health outcomes, compared to the baseline readings.

No matter the initial levels, the students reported less feelings of loneliness and depression when they had to limit their social media time.

This study and countless of personal experiences you can find online, strongly suggest that limited use of social media increases your well-being and decreases loneliness.

So how can you tackle your social media use?

loneliness social media

Let's get started

It is not social media itself, but the way it is integrated into our life which causes loneliness.

As social media makes it very easy to compare your own life with others, it will accentuate any feelings of loneliness you have.

Any time spent on social media with people, is worth way less than building that connection in real life.

There is more value to being with that person face-to-face, on the phone or a video call. That charges your social battery much better than sending a like, seeing their story or sharing a comment.

Limiting your use of social media decreases feelings of loneliness. This social media detox guide helps you to make the first steps.

Although easier said than done, try joining a club or (volunteering) group. Doing something you enjoy and look forward to can decrease anxiety around social events.

Besides, it helps you to meet like-minded people. Having things in common makes it easier to find things to talk about and bond.

Finally, I challenge you to make genuine contact today or tomorrow. Don’t like or comment, but call someone, send them a longer message (like a short letter) or meet up!

Hi, I would love to hear your thoughts on this post!

Hi, I’m Zuba. If you want to be more intentional about your time spent on social media, learn about digital minimalism and create healthy phone habits, you’ll feel right at home here.

Claim your FREE social media detox guide!

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