Of Course Some Lonely People Spend Lots of Time on Social Media

Photo: Harpazo Hope/Getty Images

Think about the last time you spent two straight hours on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, clicking around madly. Did you feel socially fulfilled and connected to your fellow humans?

If not, you weren’t alone — a new study adds to the growing pile of evidence that there is a connection between prolonged social-media use and loneliness.

“It turns out that the people who reported spending the most time on social media — more than two hours a day — had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on those sites,” writes NPR’s Katherine Hobson. “And people who visited social-media platforms most frequently, 58 visits per week or more, had more than three times the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week. The study appeared Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.”

The study’s co-author, Brian Primack, who directs the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, told Hobson he was surprised by the result. “It’s social media, so aren’t people going to be socially connected?” he said.

But should we still be surprised by this? It should be abundantly clear by now that spending time on social media is not the same as engaging in meaningful real-world social activity.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t overlap; of course you can have meaningful social interactions on Facebook and other platforms, and of course there are plenty of instances in which social media helps people stay connected. But anyone who is a social-media regular also knows that these services can also foster dull, hollow-feeling, and FOMO-laden sessions of endless clicking toward no real end. It certainly feels like there’s a connection between the length of time you spend on (say) Facebook and how lonely your time on there is going to make you feel.

Questions of causality are always complicated, of course, and Facebook’s effects on someone are probably mediated by everything from that person’s personality to how extensive and tight-knit their real-world social network is. But again: It’s probably time to stop being surprised that some lonely people spend hours and hours on social media.

Here’s More Evidence for a Social Media–Loneliness Link