Since the beginning of the Internet, pundits have worried that computer-mediated communication would have a pernicious effect on our social networks. Instead of going out and interacting with others in traditional settings, the fearmongers fretted, people will stare at their computers all day typing messages to people they’ve never even met. And if you’ll look up from your smartphone a moment, you’ll see that everyone around you is engrossed in theirs. So maybe the fearmongers were right.
There’s even scientific evidence that suggests social media use is bad for your psychological health. Some results show that people feel lonelier—and experience drops in self-esteem—after using Facebook. These reports about the dangers of social media use have even made it into the mainstream media. You might have read some of these stories on Facebook.
A careful review of the literature, however, paints a more complicated picture. It’s certainly true that a number of studies have found a connection between social media use and declines in well-being. But other studies have found opposite results, with people feeling more socially connected as they spend more time on social media.
And then there are the studies that find conflicting results. For example, one study considered the relationship between the number of Facebook friends and social adjustment in college freshmen and seniors. The more Facebook friends the freshmen had, the less socially adjusted they were to the college environment. But the result was the opposite for the seniors. The more Facebook friends they had, the more socially adjusted they were.
Conflicting results such as these suggest the need to step back and look at the larger context. The fundamental question that researchers have been asking is this: “Does using social media make you lonely?” But it now seems we’ve been asking the wrong question. At least that’s the conclusion Duke University psychologist Jenna Clark and her colleagues came to in an article they recently published in the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science.
According to these researchers, whether using social media makes you lonely or not depends on what you do with social media. This point is illustrated in the study of college freshmen and seniors just mentioned. As it turns out, the college freshmen were using Facebook to keep in touch with their friends from high school. So the more time they spent online, the less they had for building new friendships on campus, leading to increased feelings of loneliness. In contrast, the college seniors were using Facebook mainly to communicate with friends on campus. So the more time they spent online, the more connected they felt.
Many people use social media as a substitute for in-person social exchanges. Particularly for those who suffer from social anxiety—that is, the fear of interacting with other people, especially strangers—social media seems like a safe alternative. These people lack the necessary social skills to successfully navigate interpersonal exchanges. As a result, their social networks are fragile and fail to support their need for connectedness. But when they go online, they carry with them this same set of inappropriate social behaviors.
Clark and colleagues warn of two pitfalls in social media use. The first pitfall is what they call “social snacking.” This involves activities such as browsing through other people’s profiles or reading other people’s comments without making any of your own. Social snacking may feel like social engagement, and while you’re doing it you might temporarily forget your own feelings of loneliness. But just as junk food makes you feel both bloated and empty afterward, social snacking only leaves you with much time wasted and more loneliness than before.
The second pitfall is self-comparison. On Facebook, other people’s lives seem so much more exciting and glamorous than your own. Of course, the socially savvy know when someone is just boasting, and they discount what that person says. But when you’re all alone in the wee hours of the morning, the tall tales people tell on social media can make your own life seem insignificant by comparison.
As Clark and colleagues point out, these pitfalls aren’t unique to social media. Rather, they’re the same traps that snare socially-isolated people in their attempts at interpersonal exchanges as well. Oftentimes, people with poor social skills will try to compensate by thrusting themselves into social situations, perhaps with the hope that if they just go where there are other people, someone will make friends with them. They join a church, hang out at the gym, or attend office parties. But they’re too inhibited to initiate an exchange with anyone they don’t already know, and when others do approach them, their awkwardness soon sends them away.
Some people engage in social snacking in real life, too. Instead of interacting with those around them, they stand back and watch as others chit-chat, laugh, and seem to have a grand old time. In the end, the spectacle only makes the socially awkward feel even lonelier. And they engage in maladaptive social comparisons as well. Because other people seem to have much happier and more fulfilling lives than they do, their self-esteem takes a heavy hit as well.
In the end, whether using social media makes you feel lonelier or not depends on what you do when you're online. If you already have good social skills, you’ll find Facebook a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends and family. In this way, social networking sites enrich our lives.
But if you find yourself passively browsing through social media to take your mind off your loneliness, you’d be better off spending some time in self-help instead. There are plenty of sites on the Internet—including here on Psychology Today—that give sound advice on how to improve your social skills. Take the advice to heart and practice it in public. As your social skills improve, so will the quality of the time you spend on Facebook.
Clark, J. L., Algoe, S. B., & Green, M. C. (2017). Social network sites and well-being: The role of social connection. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication.