Social connections have a dramatic impact on our health. Close connections reduce risk of illness and help us live longer, while loneliness quite literally spikes your risk for premature death. Social media should, one would think, be a way to foster social connections … but can strong, positive connections really be forged online?
Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh set out to answer that question.
The Health Effects of Human Connection
Strong evidence shows that people who have satisfying relationships live longer … healthier … and happier lives. Those who have fewer and less satisfying social connections fare worse on almost all measures—according to one study based on data from over 309,000 people, a lack of strong relationships increases your risk of premature death from all causes by 50%.
Dr. Brian A. Primark, Ph.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, and assistant vice chancellor for health and society in the University of Pittsburgh’s Schools of Health Sciences, led a team who analyzed how social media use influenced feelings of isolation and loneliness. Primark and his fellow researchers used self-reported data that covered social media use as well as physical … mental … and social well-being.
They found that participants who reported spending the most amount of time on social media were far more likely to feel isolated.
Which Came First, the Loneliness or the Social Media?
Study participants who spent the most time using social media (two hours or more daily) were twice as likely to feel
isolated as those who spent the least time using it (less than half an hour a day). The relationship between time spent using social media and feelings of isolation remained consistent after Primark and his team adjusted for a spectrum of social and demographic factors.
The study identified a correlation, but did not indicate causation. In other words, does spending more time using social media cause people to feel isolated, or do people who feel isolated spend more time using social media in an attempt to alleviate that loneliness?
Another element to consider, Primark says, is that looking at idealized versions of other people’s lives could lead to stark comparisons. “You might watch all these interactions where it seems like everyone is connecting,” images of perfect vacations, homes, and lives, and even knowing that they likely do not represent reality, you can feel like you’re missing out.
Interact More, Scroll Less for Better Connections
Primark notes, too, that it’s important to consider whether social media use represents a retreat from in-person experiences, or an opportunity to connect online. For example:
- Passive scrolling, for instance, has been shown to be the most detrimental use of social media
- Actively engaging with other social media users online can bring benefits and reduce loneliness
Researchers have also found social media use can be especially beneficial for individuals with fewer opportunities for in-person connections, for instance, new mothers … elderly individuals … and individuals with chronic illnesses or disabilities. An Australian study examined how social media use could help elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to isolation and related health issues. The study found that after using an online application to exchange photos and messages for ten weeks, participants felt more connected and less isolated. They even developed a shared language, which encouraged feelings of belonging and inclusion.
One thing we can all agree on is that there’s more to uncover about how social media influences human health. For the moment, a good rule of thumb for social media, as with many things, is to use moderation.