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Loneliness and Social Media Use Amid and After the Pandemic

Social media use impacts loneliness in different ways at different times.

Key points

  • Despite its necessary use for maintaining contact during COVID-19, little has changed in the social effects of social media.
  • It is important to distinguish between "social loneliness" and "emotional loneliness."
  • For younger and emotionally lonely people, social media is still no substitute for meeting people in the real world.

Loneliness has been in the headlines for many years now, and many people concerned with public health issues view loneliness as a major problem for many societies. For example, the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, has said,

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.1

Implicit in this statement is the assumption of a relationship between loneliness and digital communication, as well as an expressed surprise that, with all the means of communication available, loneliness should be increasing. However, previous research suggests that there are many reasons to expect just this association between increasing social media usage and loneliness. More depressingly, new research suggests that, despite its widespread and necessary use for maintaining contact during the pandemic, little has changed in the social effects that we get from social media.

Effects of Loneliness on Physical Health

A reason why many concerned with public health spotlight loneliness, quite apart from the psychological misery that feeling lonely can provoke, is that loneliness has profound impacts on physical health. A statistic in common usage is that being lonely decreases your life expectancy by about the same extent as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.2 It is important to distinguish, here, between "social loneliness," which implies not having enough social contacts, and "emotional loneliness," which implies not having a strong enough in-depth relationship. While both forms of loneliness can negatively impact health, emotional loneliness is felt to be the more important.

Not surprisingly, the impact of loneliness on physical and psychological health has caused many governments and health officials to look at the causes, as well as the effects, of such loneliness. These causes have been taken to include the structure of work and the environment,1 as well as social media usage.3,4 The reason social media has been highlighted in this regard are findings, first noted long before the pandemic, of a correlation between social media use and greater experience of loneliness.3 Research suggests that this association goes beyond mere correlation, as social media use has been found to lead to greater loneliness later in time, suggesting something of a causal relationship.4

The question is whether the pandemic changed this relationship between social media usage and loneliness. During that period of enforced reduced social contact, at least for many, digital communication played a key part in keeping people in contact with one another. Have we learned anything for our usage of digital communication during that period that may allow more functional use of this technology as we emerge from the pandemic?

Recent Studies on Social Media Use and Loneliness and the Impact of the Pandemic

Three recent studies5,6,7 have offered a fascinating insight into the effects of this globally impacting disease on the relationship between social media use and loneliness—and these can help to explore how COVID-19 may have changed our relationship to, and feelings about, social media. One set of studies was conducted in Finland, and these examined the effect of social media use on loneliness before and during the pandemic.5 A second study was conducted during the pandemic in Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.6 The last of the "trilogy" compared the influence of social media on loneliness in the United Kingdom during and after the pandemic Together, they are uniquely placed to reveal any shifts in the effects of social media.

The longitudinal studies conducted in Finland (one before and one during the pandemic) allowed a comparison of loneliness and its relationship to social media use during those periods.5 These studies found that loneliness did not increase during the pandemic, but distress about loneliness increased among those who reported being lonely. Comparing the before and during studies, the authors found that social media "bubbles" (participating in a social media group) predicted less loneliness and less distress, in general. However, those who were lonely before the pandemic did not report any benefit from using social media during the pandemic. The authors concluded:

Social media identity bubbles can offer meaningful social resources during times of social distancing but cannot protect against higher psychological distress among those who perceive themselves as often lonely.

Perhaps it creates breadth, but not depth, in relationships, so it doesn’t help with emotional loneliness.

The second of the three studies6 examined the association between loneliness and social media use during the pandemic for different age groups. This study found that younger adults reported more emotional loneliness than any of the other age groups—this could be because they did not have an established in-depth relationship. Older and middle-aged people using a wider range of social media reported less social (but not emotional) loneliness. In contrast, younger people using more social media reported experiencing more emotional loneliness. The authors suggested:

Older people’s engagement on social media may be a resource to reduce loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as with the study from Finland,5 those who started as more lonely (in this case, the younger people), did not gain any benefit from using social media—social or emotional.

The last of the three studies7 compared the effects of social media use during and after the pandemic, to see whether any changes introduced by the pandemic in the use and function of social media survived the end of the lockdowns. Two three-month longitudinal studies examined the temporal relationships between problematic Internet use, Internet usage, and loneliness, during and after lockdown restrictions. The findings suggested that actual amounts of use had little impact on loneliness before or after lockdown, but when that use started to interfere with other aspects of life (like real relationships), then people were lonely. During the pandemic, social media "addiction" and loneliness both predicted each other—more usage led to more loneliness, and more loneliness led to more usage. However, following the pandemic, compulsive Internet use led to subsequent loneliness, but not vice versa—possibly suggesting that the lonely do not necessarily seek out social media, but social media usage makes people more lonely.

Same Negative Impacts as Before the Pandemic

The results from these three studies5–7 seem to take us full circle, back to the earlier findings; social media use, whatever its usefulness during the pandemic, is now having exactly the same negative impacts as it did before the pandemic.3,4 On the positive, for some older people, using social media can reduce social loneliness, and it may be helpful in reducing distress about loneliness for people who are not already lonely.5,6 However, social media does not reduce emotional loneliness for anybody, and for those who are already emotionally lonely, and/or those using social media excessively, especially the young, social media only creates problems in terms of feeling emotionally isolated.

The lesson is that social media contact is no substitute for a real relationship. It may be a good tool for creating wider circles of acquaintances, improving social networking, and combating social loneliness, at least for older people (that is, pretty much anybody over the age of 30). However, for the younger and for the emotionally lonely, social media is no substitute for meeting people in the real world, and the pandemic has changed nothing about this.


1. Murthy, V. (26.9.17). Work and the loneliness epidemic. Harvard Business Review. Work and the Loneliness Epidemic (

2. Kroll, M.M. (2.5.22). Prolonged social isolation and loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. University of New Hampshire. Prolonged Social Isolation and Loneliness are Equivalent to Smoking 15 Cigarettes A Day | Extension (

3. Moretta, T., & Buodo, G. (2020). Problematic internet use and loneliness: How complex is the relationship? A short literature review. Current Addiction Reports, 7(2), 125–136.

4. Costa, R.M., Patrão, I., & Machado, M. (2019). Problematic internet use and feelings of loneliness. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 23(2), 160–162.

5. Latikka, R., Koivula, A., Oksa, R., Savela, N., & Oksanen, A. (2022). Loneliness and psychological distress before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: Relationships with social media identity bubbles. Social Science & Medicine, 293, 114674.

6. Bonsaksen, T., Ruffolo, M., Leung, J., Price, D., Thygesen, H., Schoultz, M., & Geirdal, A. Ø. (2021). Loneliness and its association with social media use during the COVID-19 outbreak. Social Media+ Society, 7(3), 20563051211033821.

7. Reed, P., Davies, A., Evans, E., & Osborne, L.A. (2023). Longitudinal relationship between problematic internet use with loneliness during and after COVID-19 social restrictions. Psychiatry Research.

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