Social media have been growing in popularity for years now. As the name implies, the activity is supposed to be social, bringing individuals together and promoting feelings of belonging. However, first glances can be deceiving, and social media have increasingly been associated with another phenomenon taking our 21st century society by storm: loneliness.
Over the last couple of years, a myriad of articles have sprouted in which social media are scrutinised for their detrimental effects on young people's mental health. Loneliness in particular has received a lot of attention from mental health professionals and social media users alike.
Although social media, like Facbook and Twitter, may initially be thought to promote interaction between individuals who would otherwise never talk, social media have in fact recently been associated with social anxiety - a state in which one has a particular fear of social situations and interactions and experiences stress as a result of these situations. However, a lack thereof may also play a vital role. Social anxiety has been related to feelings of loneliness, studies suggesting that the relationship is bidirectional, leading to a downward spiral.
Interactions on social media have started to form a large part of young people's networks in general, and as a result, successfully developing and maintaining this digital social network seems to have become an internal meter for whether or not a person is socially accomplished. And these feelings of whether or not you are successful in social interactions will certainly affect feelings of loneliness, anxiety and paranoia.
In addition, an integral part of social media is that information is shared. This means that social comparison is stronger than ever. Friendships and relationships in general have now become quantifiable and can be monitored more closely than ever, leading to comparisons that feel more realistic and meaningful. Where one previously always had the possibility to allow for unknown factors (e.g. 'Oh, he's got a lot of friends, but I'm sure he's not doing well in school') that mitigate the 'threat', now it seems that people are excelling in every aspect of their life (not necessarily because this is true, but because information can be selectively shared).
Moreover, it seems that feeling lonely for whatever reason will in turn increase social media use, potentially exacerbating the problems having led to social media reliance in the first place. People turn to social media for connectedness and social reassurance, but end up mostly feeling the inevitable distance between themselves and the rest of the digital world in which interactions are primarily aimed at establishing your own status, and are thus more of a monologue than a dialogue.
Thus, as with most new and enticing technologies, the reality is a confusing and complex cocktail of good and bad, and social media are definitely no exception.
Ndasauka Y, Hou J, Wang Y, Yang L et al. (2016) Excessive use of Twitter among college students in the UK: Validation of the Microblog Excessive Use Scale and relationship to social interaction and loneliness. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 963-971.
Chiou W-B, Lee C-C & Liao D-C (2015) Facebook effects on social distress: Priming with online social networking thoughts can alter the perceived distress due to social exclusion. Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 230-236.