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Is Social Media Making Us Lonelier?

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Social mediaInitially, most of us thought that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media applications would help to bring people together. And, yes, in many instances that has been true. Such apps have made it possible—even simple—to catch up with former classmates living thousands of miles away, share a video of your baby’s first steps with relatives near and far, or strike up new acquaintances while discussing the stock market or last night’s ballgame. Yet, a new NIH-funded study suggests that social media may also have the power to make people feel left out and alone.

Based on a nationwide survey of more than 1,700 young adults, researchers found that individuals who were the heaviest users of social media were two to three times more likely to feel socially isolated than those who used little to no social media [1]. And that’s a concern to those of us in the medical field: previous research has linked social isolation to worsening physical and mental health, and even an increased risk of death [2,3]. In fact, some experts have gone so far as to label loneliness a major public health concern.

The new study, reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, was led by Brian Primack and his colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh. They set out to look specifically at social media use and its possible association with feelings of social isolation in young adults.

To do so, they randomly surveyed 1,787 male and female young adults about their use of 11 popular social media applications. These included Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram, and Reddit.

The survey also contained four questions about social isolation, or lacking a sense of social belonging. For each of the four questions, participants selected a number from 1 to 5, corresponding to never, rarely, sometimes, often, and always. Their perceived social isolation was then calculated by adding up the answers to those four questions.

Respondents, who were ages 19 to 32, were quite diverse in their educational level, income, and ethnicity. A little over half were white, with 13 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent racially mixed.

Primack and his colleagues found that the top users of social media spent more than two hours per day on the apps, visiting them on average at least 58 times per week. Those who were the most limited users of social media least spent 30 minutes or less clicking on social media each day, with 8 or fewer weekly visits per week.

The researchers found that people who spent the most time on social media were twice as likely to feel more socially isolated. And those who logged onto social media apps several times each day were more than three times as likely as those who rarely used social media to feel more socially isolated.

There’s a chicken-and-the-egg issue here. It’s not really clear which came first: social media use leading to feelings of social isolation—or vice versa. It’s possible that people who feel socially isolated look to social media to help fill the void. Or, it may be that spending hours on social media, rather than on other activities, encourages feelings of isolation and even jealousy. That is, people may read the carefully selected posts of their friends who appear to be having fun, and become resentful of being left out. It may also be some combination of both.

The researchers say they don’t mean to imply that people should drop social media altogether. Social media is a useful tool and, for many of us, it has become an integral part of modern life. But going forward, it will be important to learn how to develop and maintain healthy social media habits that add to, rather than detract from, the quality of our lives. As with many things in life, balance is key.


[1] Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.S. Primack BA, Shensa AS, Sidani JE, Whaite EO, Lin LY, Rosen D, Colditz JB, Radovic A, Miller E. Am J Prev Med. 2017 March 6; Article in press.

[2] Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, Lin N, Shablack H, Jonides J, Ybarra O. PLoS One. 2013 Aug 14;8(8):e69841.

[3] Social isolation: a predictor of mortality comparable to traditional clinical risk factors. Pantell M, Rehkopf D, Jutte D, Syme SL, Balmes J, Adler N. Am J Public Health. 2013 Nov;103(11):2056-62.


Social Media Fact Sheet (Pew Research Center)

Brian Primack (University of Pittsburgh)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute



  • Natasa Bebich says:

    This is an interesting blog as it deals with a subject that is obviously starting to have an impact on our mental health and our daily living. Road deaths from mobile device distraction and cyber bullying from online predatory behaviours are the noted extremes, but what about the ones we often turn a blind eye to.

    Social networks have become the cyber minds of the masses.

    You just need to walk down the street, catch public transport or enter any work environment to observe the levels of social media gadgets being used to instantly grab a person’s attention.

    Is it possible that our feelings of isolation are coming from the void of having no idea of how to get ‘back to basics’ and just live life! You know the conversation with a friend, a quick chat with the neighbour or that laugh with another as you wait to get your washing done at the laundry mat.

    If people are feeling twice as socially isolated on social media than those who log on a few times, what is it about the social media posting that is making them feel this isolation and why do the keep going back?

    As a responsible social media user, I often see how the apps and constant feeds are pulling in quick fixes, promoting lifestyle changes and selling the image that others have got it all. If they have it all why do they need to post so much on line? Could there be something here to ponder on about our need for recognition from others to measure our own self worth rather than enjoying the experience we have and get on with life.

    What are these health social media habits? Have we normalised the abnormal in order to push more, pump more and promote more?
    Is it about going forward or going back to basics? Remembering how we used to look at the person sitting opposite us on the train, have a conversation with the person at the shop counter, sit, listen and laugh with others at the dining table.

    Are we using social media as an excuse for not getting on with what life has to offer when we are connecting and getting real? Could this be the reason why we are looking on line and not bothering to just look around us?

  • joe petrisko says:

    I love the comment above by Natasa (Natasha?) Bebich that “Social networks have become the cyber minds of the masses.” To follow up on her remarks concerning perceived isolation, as someone of the what would now be perceived as the ancient age of 71, I remember when people grew up, lived & died within a 50-mile radius from the point where they were born. Then came the “mobile” society. When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh PA, moving to Buenos Aires, Argentina would have been considered irrational. Today, however, that is where I live, & many others have also fled to other far corners of the Earth. I am wondering whether one of the effects of our now highly mobile society might be the perceived feeling on the part of some people of being plunked down in some completely unknown & unfamiliar place akin to an alien planet & stripped of their previously held social security blanket of close friends & relatives being nearby. Perhaps they turn to social media to fill this void, although one must inquire whether social media truly provides two-say conversations, as most social media seems to be one-way communication. Thoughts, anyone? And thank you in advance for any & all input.
    joe 😎

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