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Social Media: Why Does it Make Us Feel More Lonely?

Social media can make us feel more depressed. Here's what we can do about it.

What can we do to promote social media resilience?
Source: japanexpertena/flickr

Findings from a recently released study[i] demonstrate that social media use can directly impact our mental health, causing increased levels of depressive symptoms and loneliness. In an experimental study, researchers at University of Pennsylvania followed college students over the course of three weeks, asking them to send nightly screen shots of their battery usage (which reveals how much time they spent on social media per day). The experimental group was asked to limit their social media usage of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 10 minutes per platform per day (no more than 30 minutes per day total). The control group was told to continue social media use as usual. Researchers found that all students in the study showed decreased anxiety and “fear of missing out” (FOMO) scores over baseline, presumably due to self-monitoring throughout the three weeks. It seems that just being aware of how much you are using social media each day helps you use less and actually feel better in terms of worries over missing out on what others are doing. But interestingly, the experimental group (students who limited their social media use to only 30 minutes per day) had significantly lower depressive symptoms and loneliness than did the control group by the end of the three weeks.

This finding is eye opening in that many studies have shown a correlation between social media use and negative mental health symptoms— including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even suicide-related outcomes[ii]. The relationship between negative mental health and social media use is strongest for those whose people whose usage patterns are the heaviest. While researchers continue to amass data indicating this connection, the actual direction of the relationship remained unclear: Is it that depressed and lonely people are more likely to seek out social media and use it more often than others, or does social media use directly contribute to people’s experience of more negative mental health symptoms? This study gives us initial evidence about the direction of the relationship.

Why Would Social Media Make Us Lonely?

In exploring the somewhat puzzling finding that social media use leads to negative mental health outcomes, particularly depression and associated loneliness, the question becomes, “Why? Why would social media use lead to increased depressive symptoms? Isn’t the purpose of using social media to be social, to increase and enhance our connections with others?” Looking at the pervasive use of social media in our current culture, there is no doubt that we are definitely more “connected”, but these online connections just don’t seem to be emotionally satisfying. When using social media for multiple hours per day to the neglect of face-to-face interactions, people report feeling less fulfilled and even more isolated. As people mindlessly scroll through their feeds, they compare themselves to others, which can create envy, feelings of rejection, and contribute to a “fear of missing out” on the great time everyone else seems to be having. Even more concerning, for younger users who are in the process of developing an identity, their development of an authentic sense of self can be impaired when they “live for likes” and measure their worth by the number of friends and followers they can accumulate. Further, when they are heavily immersed in social media, they are also likely to be sacrificing active participation in non-screen activities that are known to boost mental health and well-being. Finally, many users report that social media use contributes to decreased hours of sleep, and sleep deprivation also contributes to poor mental health.

Strategies for Social Media Resilience

While these findings seem like bad news for parents of teens (the heaviest users of social media), young adults, and actually any individual who is a heavy user of social media, the results of this particular study can be seen as encouraging in some ways— you don’t need to go cold turkey and put down your phone forever in order to feel better. An abstinence approach is simply unrealistic in current culture, particularly for younger people. The study demonstrates that people should become more mindful of their usage patterns (and that this practice alone will help curb our usage) and that they should put limits in place if they don’t want their social media experience to lead to increased depression and loneliness. How to start? Here are eight ideas to promote your social media resilience:

  1. Be intentional about Social Media Visits. Instead of considering social media as a 24-hour, ever-present experience in which you remain immersed, think about your platforms as simply a place to “visit”. Intentionally decide when to open your social media apps, decide how long you intend to visit, and when you intend to leave. While the highlighted study suggests that people who reduced their use to 30 minutes per day had more positive benefits than those who used more than 30 minutes, this might not be the right number for everyone. The point is to pay attention to your urge to look at social media, be mindful of how long you want to spend there, enjoy your brief visit, and then move on to something else in your life.
  2. Turn off Notifications and Close the Apps. Once you have closed your social media app/site, try not to think about it again until the next time you decide to visit. This is almost impossible if you receive notifications every few seconds about what you are missing out on by not checking your app. One way to help you do this is to change your notification settings so that you do not receive notifications about new posts, etc. If you are on a computer, close the window so you will not continue to receive notifications and messages as you try to do something else on your device. It is exceedingly difficult to fully concentrate on other tasks (or on face-to-face conversations with real people) if you are constantly interrupted by a series of pings that draw you back into your feed.
  3. Become an Active Participant rather than a Passive Scroller. There is some research evidence to suggest that people who passively scroll through their feeds are more negatively impacted by social media than those who actively participate on others’ posts as they scroll (e.g., making comments, clicking “likes”, sharing stories). Try to intentionally interact with others’ posts when you visit your social media pages.
  4. Limit Social Media Platforms. Some research suggests that the more social media platforms you use, the more likely you are to experience depression and anxiety. In fact, in one study, the total number of media platforms that participants used was more strongly associated with depression and anxiety than was the total amount of time they spent on social media[iii].
  5. Put the Device Away at Least an Hour Before Bedtime. Social media use is associated with sleep deprivation, which can contribute to poor mental health. This occurs for two reasons: one, because the light emitted from your phone (or device) tends to suppress the production of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that your body produces in order to induce sleep. So using your phone or device at bedtime makes it harder for you to fall asleep. Second, many people report using social media at bedtime and then using it far longer than they intended, losing valuable hours of sleep. This is particularly detrimental for teens who sleep with their phones at night and whose sleep is continually disrupted by notifications and checking social media throughout the night. It is far better for teens to turn their phones in at night to an agreed upon charging area (not in their bedrooms) so that they can actually obtain much needed quality sleep[iv].
  6. Increase Face-to-Face Interactions. Spend time with people you know and care about. This is far better for your mental health than interacting through on-line messaging. Studies show that when you use social media to boost your interactions with friends between actual face-to-face visits, social media use does not seem to negatively impact mood. In contrast, for people who primarily interact with others on social media only (particularly with people they don’t ever see face-to-face) these interactions actually contribute to depressive symptoms, causing them to feel even more isolated.
  7. Increase Participation in Non-Screen Activities. Since the wide introduction of the smartphone around 2010, studies show that teens are far less likely to hang out in person with friends, go to the movies, read books or magazines, or be involved in the community. Further, teens who participate in fewer non-screen activities show the most negative mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety[v]. If you are a parent, however countercultural it sounds, encourage your teen to find interests that do not involve staring at a screen. If you are an adult, think back to hobbies that you enjoyed prior to buying your first smartphone. Put down your phone, try one of these activities, and see what happens!
  8. Give the Gift of Active Listening to Those in Your Social Sphere. When you are with others, intentionally make an effort to put away your phone, switch it to silent, and enjoy your time with the people actually in front of you. Make eye contact and really listen to what they are saying. Ask questions to indicate that you are interested in them. They will be surprised to have your full attention, and this is one of the best gifts you can offer them in our connected-yet-disconnected culture.

I recognize that while these social media resilience strategies might seem far too basic for some, they are likely to seem idealistic to others. Thanks to new research (and likely our own experiences), we are increasingly aware that the more time we spend on social media, the more likely it is that we will feel worse, not better, in terms of our mood and our relationships. Research is also clear about things that do promote positive mental health—things like spending face-to-face time with people we care about, exercising, sleeping well, and pursuing meaningful activities. We can choose to slow how much we scroll—and in so doing, we might actually feel more connected to others and to life.

[i] Hunt, M. G., Marx, R., Lipson, C., & Young, J. (2018). No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37, 751-768.

[ii] Lin, L., y., SIdani, J. #., Shensa, A., Radivoc, A., Miller, E. Colditz, J.B., Hoffman, B.L., Giles, L. M., & Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among U. S. young adults. Depression and Anxiety, 33, 323-331

Royal Society for Public Health (2018). #StatusOfMind: Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Retrieved from…

Twenge, J., M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. P., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U. S. Adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 61, 3-17.

[iii] Primack BA, Shensa A, Escobar-Viera CG, Barrett EL, Sidani JE, Colditz JB, James AE. Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S. young adults. Computers in Health Behavior.

[iv] Choate, L. (2015). Swimming Upstream: Parenting girls for resilience in a toxic culture. New York: Oxford University press.

[v] Twenge, J., M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. P., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U. S. Adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 61, 3-17.

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