Loneliness and Media Usage: A Study of 8 Million Americans

A new study finds increased loneliness among iGen.

Posted Aug 22, 2019

nastya_gepp/Pixabay
Source: nastya_gepp/Pixabay

How are individuals going through their teen years in the 2010s (members of iGen) different from those who went through their teenage years in earlier decades? One major difference is that they spend more time using digital media and less time in in-person social interactions. In an article published in the June issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Jean Twenge and colleagues suggest that a lack of in-person interactions, as commonly seen in iGeners, is associated with loneliness.

Before getting into the findings of this study, let us learn a little about generational groupings. A generation refers to people born in a particular time period. In their research, Twenge et al. distinguish the following generations (sometimes with minor variations in the time period). The numbers in the brackets refer to the year of birth:

  • Silent (1925–1945)
  • Baby Boomers (1946–1964)
  • GenX (1965–1979)
  • Millennials (1980–1994)
  • iGen (1995–2012)

Data and measures

We now turn to how Twenge and colleagues conducted their study. Data came from two large longitudinal surveys:

The authors examined the time period 1976-2017, which resulted in a sample of 8.2 million young Americans. Such a large sample allowed researchers to compare social interactions in four generations of teenagers: iGen, Millennials, GenX, and Boomers.

To measure participants’ interactions with friends, researchers assessed the frequency of these individuals getting together; going on dates; or going out to parties, movies, malls, bars, etc. Excluded were activities that are usually done alone or with the family (e.g., TV watching), or are more task-focused (e.g., sports).

In addition, researchers measured participants’ loneliness (sample item: “A lot of times I feel lonely”) and frequency of social media use—MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram....

In-person interactions, loneliness, and social media usage

Comparisons between individuals going through adolescence in different time periods showed that in more recent decades teenagers are less likely to spend time with their friends (be it going to the mall, the movies, parties, etc).

For instance, the authors report that, compared with earlier decades, iGeners are less likely to go out with friends; a larger number rarely go out at all—for instance, “twice as many iGen 12th graders in 2017 (19%, vs. 8% among Boomers) said they went out less than once a week” (p. 1898).1

And college-bound seniors in 2016, compared to those in 1987, spent 4 hours and 22 minutes less each week in social interactions with friends. They also partied less (a weekly reduction of 3 hours and 28 minutes).

Antranias/Pixabay
Source: Antranias/Pixabay

Many of the major changes coincided with the increase in digital media use; indeed, they resemble the effects of television in the previous century—except that instead of replacing community activities (as TV did), digital media usage might be replacing in-person interactions.

Examining the trends in loneliness, the authors found loneliness increased between 2010 and 2017—especially among female, lower socioeconomic status, and Black/Hispanic adolescents. 

When comparing results at the group level and individual level, the following patterns were observed:

At the group level, results indicate that young people are spending more time using digital media and less engaging in personal interaction, meaning that digital media use may be displacing physical personal interactions.

At the individual level, teenagers who socialize more frequently also appear to have greater social media activities; so for these individuals, the in-person and online activities complement each other: An individual who “uses more social media...also accrues greater social capital and opportunities for in-person interaction, especially if the person is also socially and technologically competent and sociable” (p. 1907).1

Conclusion: Causes and implications of fewer interactions and more loneliness

The research reviewed today, on the social life of over 8 million young Americans, found increases in loneliness over time, and negative changes in a variety of in-person social activities—changes that coincided with the increase in digital media usage. Nearly half of the drop in in-person social interactions occurred between 2010 and 2017. For instance, “Eighth graders in 2017 got together with their friends 41 fewer times a year than in 2010.” To put this in perspective, the frequency of them getting together with friends declined from approximately 153 to 112 times per year (pp. 1898-9).1

It is tempting to conclude that the increase in digital media use is the cause of both reduced in-person interactions and increases in loneliness, but such conclusions are not possible due to the correlational nature of this research. Nevertheless, as the authors note, several other potential causes for the observed patterns of results are not backed by evidence. Just to take one example, students are spending either the same or less amount of time on homework or extracurricular activities, meaning that a lack of leisure time is not likely the reason for the reduced social interactions.

Whatever the cause(s) of the reduced in-person social interaction and increases in loneliness, these changes have important implications, some of which are:

-Less in-person interaction translates to fewer opportunities to develop social skills; this has a negative impact on multiple life domains (e.g., work, friendship, romantic relationships).

-Increased loneliness is associated with negative outcomes, such as impaired immune function, poor sleep quality, and depression—which has recently been on the rise.2

References

1. Twenge, J. M., Spitzburg, B. H., & Campbell, W. K. (2019). Less in-person social interaction with peers among U.S. adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 1892-1913.

2. Mojtabai, R., Olfson, M., & Han, B. (2016). National trends in the prevalence and treatment of depression in adolescents and young adults. Pediatrics, 138(6), e20161878.