Most of the time, social science confirms realities we already suspect to be true. Occasionally, however, this research turns up a truly surprising result. This latter scenario seems to be the case when it comes to the growing scientific literature on the impact of social media use on our mental health.
The supposed purpose of immensely popular tools such as Facebook and Instagram is to help us meet interesting new people and connect more often with our existing family and friends. This idea is even enshrined in Facebook’s stated mission to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’. And yet in recent years, a series of high-quality research studies by some of the world’s top social scientists have been documenting an opposite effect: social media is not bringing us together, instead it’s making us lonelier.
Consider, for example, a paper entitled ‘Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US’ that appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2017, which reports the results of a representative random sample survey of young American social media users. It found a clear correlation between the total number of hours someone used social media and their perceived social isolation – a metric used to measure loneliness. Being in the highest quartile of social media use made you three times more likely to be lonely than someone in the lowest quartile.
Another paper, entitled ‘Association of Facebook use with compromised wellbeing: a longitudinal study’, appearing around the same time in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found similar results when the researchers focused exclusively on Facebook use. They established a strong connection between the number of ‘likes’ and links clicked and decreases in mental health. As the authors summarised: ‘Our results show that, overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with wellbeing’.
What’s going on here? An obvious guess is that there’s something about the specific activities we perform while using these tools that makes us feel lonelier and sadder. Young people, for example, often anecdotally report that constant exposure to their friends’ carefully curated positive portrayals of their life – highlighting all the fun everyone else is supposedly having – has a way of making them feel inadequate.
More pointedly, cyberbullying perpetrated on these sites can be cruelly effective in isolating its victims. It’s also possible that the constant trading of heated political posts can sharpen tribal divisions, which weaken a sense of community cohesion.
All of these factors might be playing some role in social media’s connection to loneliness, but on closer inspection, the research literature seems to be pointing towards a more fundamental culprit: the more you socialise on social media, the less you socialise in person – and this turns out to be a bad trade. Humans crave social interaction: without it, we’re miserable.
The problem with social media is that it provides only a simulacrum of such interaction. All of that liking, sharing and commenting may make it seem like you’re actively engaging with your social circles, but our brains, which have evolved over millions of years to expect rich analogue information streams during interaction, such as facial cues, body language and subtle shifts in voice tone, don’t recognise the time spent on services such as Facebook as fundamentally social.
When you replace face-to-face encounters with clicks, your brain treats this shift as if you’ve simply stopped socialising altogether. The result: loneliness and sadness. As one of the researchers summarised in a radio interview about these findings, ‘What we know is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your wellbeing.’
Having extensively researched and written about these issues in recent years, I’m convinced that a big reason that we keep finding ourselves in problematic relationships with new technologies such as social media is that we’re delegating to our devices the hard work of cultivating a meaningful life. These big technology companies come along and say, ‘Trust us, we can make your life better, just download our app, and we’ll take care of the rest,’ but they don’t have our best interests in mind. What they’re really interested in is extracting enough time and attention from their users to maintain their revenue streams.
We are not, however, helpless to resist these big companies’ whims. One promising solution I’ve been reporting on is called digital minimalism. This approach to technology use has you start by identifying what values and activities are most important in your life. You then ask, for each value or activity: what’s the best way to use technology – if at all – to support this thing you care about, and resolve to happily ignore the rest of the noisy, shiny, over-hyped digital whimsies vying for your attention. In other words, you use new technologies for your own purposes, instead of letting them use you.
Most of the digital minimalists I’ve met highly value their relationships with friends and family. They also intuitively recognise, however, what the research cited above has recently quantified, that social media interaction is a poor substitute for actually spending time with the people you care about. As a result, they tend to relegate these tools to a more logistical role in their life.
To a digital minimalist, Facebook might be useful for monitoring community events, or learning that an old friend will be in town for a visit, but they don’t consider these online interactions as actual socialising – they are instead something they spend small amounts of time on each week to help support the old-fashioned, face-to-face work of actual relationship building.
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Social media makes us lonely when we relocate our social lives to within its impersonal digital walls. The minimalist response is to take back control. Push these technologies from the core to the periphery of your daily experience, deploying them occasionally as a useful aid – not a replacement – for the things we’ve known all along are most important for living a meaningful life.
Buy Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology from the Saga Bookshop for £14.
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