Swipe on Tinder until you’re out of likes. Scroll through Twitter until you’re too angry or too bored. Stalk back 200 weeks on Instagram until you accidentally double-tap. It’s easy to cycle through three or four apps for hours, especially when you’re bored or lonely.
Psychologists say that’s no mere coincidence. New research suggests that millennials who use social media more than typical amounts are likely to experience feelings of isolation. This doesn’t sound good, but it might not be quite as bad as it sounds.
There’s no question that social isolation is bad for you. It’s strongly correlated with worse health and earlier death. We all deal with loneliness in different ways, though, and for many people, technology offers a way to feel more connected to others.
In a study published Sunday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported the results they received when they surveyed 1,787 people between the ages of 19 and 32 on social media use and feelings of social isolation. Among the results, they found that young people who use social media 58 times or more per week had three times higher odds of experiencing social isolation than those who use social media nine times a week or fewer.
Brian Pimack, who researches health and society at the University of Pittsburgh, is the first author on the study. He says that social isolation is a cause of grave concern.
“Mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults,” Pimack tells Inverse. “We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalize us instead of bringing us together.” He recognizes that social media represents a legitimate attempt to bridge the gap between ourselves and others, but that it might not always work.
“While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for,” he says.
Elizabeth Miller, the chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, co-authored the study. She cautions that we can’t necessarily discern a causal relationship from these results.
“We don’t know which comes first,” she tells Inverse. “[Whether] those who use lots of social media have fewer in-person social interactions and feel more isolated, or those who are already feeling socially isolated end up seeking out social media to help mitigate those feelings.”
Whichever direction the relationship may go, these findings give her pause.
“It was really sobering to see the clear linear relationship — heavier social media use corresponds to greater degrees of perceived social isolation,” Miller says.
Miller tells Inverse that this research could influence her professional practice by highlighting the importance of fostering relationships in the physical world.
“I think this study prompts me as a clinician to want to talk to teens more about taking time to interact with friends and family in person, beyond just texting and posting online.”
Introduction: Perceived social isolation (PSI) is associated with substantial morbidity and mortality. Social media platforms, commonly used by young adults, may offer an opportunity to ameliorate social isolation. This study assessed associations between social media use (SMU) and PSI among U.S. young adults.
Methods: Participants were a nationally representative sample of 1,787 U.S. adults aged 19–32 years. They were recruited in October–November 2014 for a cross-sectional survey using a sampling frame that represented 97% of the U.S. population. SMU was assessed using both time and frequency associated with use of 11 social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Googleþ, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, and Reddit. PSI was measured using the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System scale. In 2015, ordered logistic regression was used to assess associations between SMU and SI while controlling for eight covariates.
Results: In fully adjusted multivariable models that included survey weights, compared with those in the lowest quartile for SMU time, participants in the highest quartile had twice the odds of having greater PSI (AOR1⁄42.0, 95% CI1⁄41.4, 2.8). Similarly, compared with those in the lowest quartile, those in the highest quartile of SMU frequency had more than three times the odds of having greater PSI (AOR1⁄43.4, 95% CI1⁄42.3, 5.1). Associations were linear (po0.001 for all), and results were robust to all sensitivity analyses.
Conclusions: Young adults with high SMU seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU. Future research should focus on determining directionality and elucidating reasons for these associations.