Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

During COVID-19, Your Social Media Bubble May Be Helping

New research shows why social media users have been feeling less lonely.

Key points

  • Social media bubbles form on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which tend to connect us with like-minded people.
  • Recent studies show that, overall, those involved in social media bubbles reported lower loneliness and psychological distress during COVID-19.
  • However, people who ordinarily had very high levels of loneliness were not better off by being involved in social media bubbles.

Shortly after the November 2016 presidential election, a piece came out in Wired titled "Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy." It was around that time that concern over social media filter bubbles was becoming more widespread.

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram tend to connect us with like-minded people and present us with information accepted as true by those who already think the way we do, leaving us with only a partial view of the world around us.

But this month, a new paper caught my attention because it shows that the effects of these bubbles are more complicated than we initially understood.

The paper, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, describes two studies.

The researchers used data from surveys of the Finnish population carried out between 2017 and 2021. The surveys included the "Identity Bubble Reinforcement Scale" (IBRS). This measures how deeply a person is embedded in what social psychologists call "social media identity bubbles," which are identity-driven online cliques that influence the news and information they receive.

One finding was that, at the population level, loneliness did not increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is consistent with some recent studies which yielded a similar result.

But other recent studies found that loneliness has increased during the pandemic. It seems that we do not yet fully understand whether social restrictions designed to control the pandemic have led to more loneliness.

The novel finding from the Finnish study is that there seems to be a connection between being involved in social media identity bubbles and mental well-being.

Overall, those who were strongly involved in social media identity bubbles reported lower loneliness and less psychological distress during the pandemic compared to those who were not.

But not everyone experienced these benefits. Social media identity bubbles appear to be helping people fare better than average during COVID-19 as long as they typically experience only moderate to low levels of loneliness. However, these bubbles do not seem to help those who typically experience high levels of loneliness.

The paper's authors suggested that this may be because people who are already very lonely might not be able to benefit from the effects of these bubbles since they struggle with feeling disconnected or excluded even within them.

If it is true that most people will benefit from being strongly involved in social media identity bubbles during the pandemic, I can't help but think of the difficult questions this raises.

Is it good to choose to do something good for your mental well-being, at least in the near term, even if it may be limiting your perspective on the world–potentially even inhibiting your ability to participate in a thriving democracy?

Difficult questions confront us as human beings, especially forcefully during times of crisis. They are difficult because, to answer them, we must reflect on our values and on the more general philosophies of life that guide us.