The Role of Social Media in Loneliness and Isolation.

copyright Joanne Orlando (2017)

1965, Jonathan King penned a ballad of dystopia that could have been written for today’s social-media frenzied younger population that contains some interesting lines, among them:

Streets full of people, all alone; 

Roads full of houses, never home.

Eyes full of sorrow, never wet, 

Hands full of money, all in debt.

No matter where you go, no matter what you do, everyone, or so it would seem, have their hands and their eyes busy with smartphones. Taking even a short drive today, one can witness people of all ages, creeping from lane to lane, eyes fixed on their smartphones; sitting after the light turns green, eyes cast down to their screens. Social media, but ask yourself is there anything less social, or perhaps I should say less socially responsible than being a distracted driver? The fixation on social media, while it spares no age group, seems to be most important to teens and young adults. Considering the amount of emotional terrorism, judgmental nonsense, and outright gobbledygook one can find on social media (not going to name platforms), the technology might be better termed antisocial media. Developmental psychologists, medical researchers, and family practitioners are finding that social media is not at all social.

Among teens and young adults (age 12 to 30), heavy use of these platforms has been positively associated with feelings of social isolation, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. This result should not come as a surprise, as those who use social media to make connections are more isolated than previous generations. A recent study on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh found a significant association between social media use and depression, and although understandable, it is at the same time counterintuitive. Face-to-face social connectivity, long been known to be positively associated with feelings of well being have diminished since the age of the social media platforms. Another study interviewed nearly 2000 adults’ aged 19 to 35 about their usage of social media platforms outside of the workplace. The result, not surprisingly, was that heavy users of social media felt left out when compared to the same age group who were light users (or nonusers) of these platforms.

Those respondents who reported spending the most time on social media, in excess two hours per day for at least six days out of seven, were twice as likely to feel isolated when compared to those who spent less than half an hour on social media. The heaviest users of social media platforms reported more than 300% increase in perceived social isolation when compared to respondents that used such platforms sparingly, or not at all.

The study, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (July, 2017), should be an eye-opener for parents of teenagers and younger children who may turn into social media to avoid feeling isolated and may end up feeling more isolated. Often, heavy users of social media platforms develop an online persona, one that exhibits enjoyment, while the reality is the real person on the other side of the keyboard is feeling isolated and alone. And while parents may hear children and teenagers complaining that everyone is connected, the reality is significantly different. Often, the need for socialization leads to feelings of exclusion, and children and even younger adults may start to feel that they are missing out. Feeling isolated furthers the use of social media, which in turn may facilitate feelings of isolation.

Those new to social media, mainly older adults, may see these platforms as a way to connect and reconnect with real-world friends and maintain current relationships. Younger adults, unfortunately, may come to see these online friends as replacements for true friendship, which has been shown to be detrimental to mental health and wellbeing. Since the late 1990s, social science has voiced concern that computer-mediated communication would have a dilatory effect on social networks. Now there is evidence that the use of social media is bad for your health, but a review of recent studies paints a more complicated picture.

Stalking and bullying, social issues among younger populations for the past million or so years, take on a new twist in the virtual world. No longer are bullies forced to face their victims, they can do it from behind the safety of a keyboard. And because people tend to share, many would say over share their personal information; stockers are finding it far easier to invade the privacy of others.

A recent study examines the relationship between the number of Facebook friends’ a high school freshman had and the level of social adjustment when compared to older students. Turns out the more Facebook friends these freshmen had, the less well adjusted they were to the high school environment. When compared to students who were seniors, this trend had changed completely, revealing a strong association between the number of Facebook friends and the level of healthy social adjustment. What Seems obvious is not if social media isolates people or brings them together, but instead why we use social media, and at what age adolescents began using it. The studies seem to suggest that younger teens used social media as a substitute for in-person relationships, and obtain their social cue from online friends, including group acceptance, bullying, peer pressure, and social exchanges. Researchers find that when younger adolescents and children base relationships on Facebook social exchanges, they apply the same interpersonal exchanges in face-to-face relationships, often lacking the adequate social skills to manage such interpersonal interactions successfully.

Whether or not you feel that social media is advisable for children and younger teens, the fact remains that, by-and-large, such interactions do not teach social skills, and the fragility of social network friendships can leave some youth feeling even more fragile, furthering their need for connection. And while comparing yourself to others can be found in virtually any childhood or teenage group, in person comparisons are often tempered with the reality that much of what they believe may not be accurate, compared to the self-comparison of social media, where everyone seems to be enjoying a better life. Often it is impossible to see the reality of our social media friends, and we are off to the left feeling inadequate.

At the end of the day (or the middle of the night), using social media to make you feel less alone may very well make you feel more alone. If you possess good social skills, cultivated in the real world, you may find social media an excellent tool for maintaining existing friendships, rather than creating new ones. But if you are hoping that social media will distract you from your loneliness, you may find just the opposite.




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