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Can social media kill you with loneliness?

The whole point of social media is to keep people connected, but scientists have long been questioning if it does more to isolate than it does to unite.

In a report released on Sunday, medical students at the University of Pittsburgh surveyed 1 787 US adults between the ages of 19 and 32 on their usage of apps like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr to determine whether or not it impacted their perceived social isolation.

According the press release, when a person has perceived isolation, they “lack a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others and fulfilling relationships”.

“This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults,” said lead author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D. in the university’s press release. “We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise 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 study found that those who use social media for longer than two hours a day were twice as likely to feel socially isolated than those who only used it for a half an hour or less. Furthermore, those who used social media apps more than 52 times a week (just over seven times a day) were three times more likely to feel disconnected from others than those who did so less than nine times a week.

A new study has examined the link between social media usage and social isolation

The study’s researchers have three main theories as to how social media can contribute to perceived isolation.

For one, more time spent on social media means less time for in-person interactions. And even when people do see each other in person, more often than not one of them will check their phones during the gathering.

Another theory is that many aspects of social media leave one feeling excluded. This could be like seeing pictures of an event you weren’t invited to — but it’s not just real-life friends that can exclude you. Oftentimes platforms like Twitter or Tumblr will come with their own cliques and friend groups that are difficult to crack, meaning you may not necessarily feel included online either.

And finally, the over-edited versions of people’s lives on social media often lend themselves to feelings of inadequacy. According to social media, your friends all have the perfect jobs, partners and lives. And even if you know that’s not true, it doesn’t mean that envy and disappointment don’t creep up on you anyway.

What came first?

But the issue with studies that look at the link between isolation and social media is the fact that it’s impossible to know whether those who already feel isolated use social media because of it or if social media is the cause itself.

Researchers acknowledged this downfall of the study, but maintained that there were practical ways of looking at its results.

“Even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations,” senior author Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D. said.

And this isolation is dangerous.

“In the past, social isolation has been independently associated with an increased risk for mortality.”

Human beings are naturally social creatures — we need human interaction to cope. And while social media presents the idea of human connection, this study has shown that it is not an adequate substitute for personal interactions.

Author | Julia Breakey

Julia Breakey
Julia is a UCT film graduate with a passion for dogs, media, and dog-centric media. If she's not gushing about the new television show that you need to watch, she's rewatching The Good Place (which you need to watch). More