One of the most deeply felt ironies of social media is that it is kind of a lie. The person we pretend to be is disconnected from the person that is; the bustling lives of others we like and scroll through are nothing more than curated alternate realities masking flaws and banalities barely different than our own.
We don’t need a study to know that, but new research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals a deeper layer: For young people, social media might not even be that social at all.
The study, put together by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, reveals that increased social media use is linked to higher levels of perceived social isolation.
The researchers asked 1,787 participants ages 19 to 32 about their social media habits and how they feel about their places in the world. They gauged their agreement with statements like “I feel that people barely know me” or “I feel that people are around me but not with me.” There were some limitations, too: Participants self-reported their social media use, so responses were subject to memory and other biases. The results can’t be generalized to other age ranges, either.
Still, it turns out, participants with high usage of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit also perceived themselves to be more socially isolated.
The social chicken or the lonely egg?
Now, the research presents us with a big, thorny question: Do people feel more isolated BECAUSE of social media, or do people who feel isolated just tend to engage in social media more, perhaps, as the study suggests, as a form of connection?
The study posits that this question could be tackled by examining the kinds of social media people engage in: Do they actively post and chat with friends, or do they passively scroll and observe activity without engaging?
Though these questions have yet to be answered, the researchers point out that feelings of isolation are often associated with negative health effects such as weight, sleep patterns and immune function. So looking into social media usage and its effects or motivations could help combat more than just loneliness.