Social media allows us to connect 24/7 with an unlimited number of people. Yet, this form of “connection” is leaving many people as lonely – or perhaps lonelier – than ever.
While people who are confident and outgoing generally use social media to enhance connections they’ve developed in person, insecure people look to it to develop and maintain their relationships – and often prefer social media to in-person communication. Electronic communications often feel safer, providing a buffer for negative social experiences, whether they struggle with poor social skills or have social anxiety (despite having good social skills). As a result, they may have less social interactions or less deeply connected relationships, both of which can make them feel more alone.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media Technology and Health recently conducted a study that has added to growing evidence that social media is causing greater loneliness. The study compared the ways that positive and negative social media experiences affected loneliness. While participants in the study did not experience a change in loneliness after positive experiences on social media, a concerning trend was found after negative experiences. Participants experienced a 13 percent increase in loneliness for every 10 percent increase in negative experiences.
These findings seem to show that social media may intensify people’s general tendency to pay more attention to negative experiences than positive ones. For some people, simply recognizing and acknowledging social media's negative effects is enough to ease them. Or, it may help you to decide to get off social media at a particular time and engage in activities that feel more positive.
While social media can increase loneliness in some ways, it is not the real problem. To address the actual issue, identifying the key contributors to your loneliness. If you think your social skills are weak, you can work on them through individual therapy, a social skills therapy group, or a self-help book (though improvement, of course, still requires live practice). If you have good social skills, but are still highly anxious and avoid in-person interactions, you need to practice being social. This includes slowly increasing the richness of the ways you communicate and challenging your fears, which are likely out of proportion to any given situation. You might be able to do this on your own, but you also might need the help of a professional. In both cases, as people become more adept and comfortable in social situations, they begin to feel more connected and less lonely.