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Heavy Social Media Use Could Lead to Isolation in Young Adults

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Checking social media often may lead to social isolation among young adults, a new study suggests. (Photo by Flickr user Jhaymesisviphotography via Creative Commons license)

Young adults who spend a lot of time looking for social connections on social media could instead find themselves feeling socially isolated, a new study suggests.

Researchers looked at the social media habits of 1,787 American adults aged 19 to 32, asking them how much they used 11 popular social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn, among others.

After controlling for various demographic factors, they found that people who used social media more than two hours per day “had twice the odds for perceived social isolation than their peers who spent less than half an hour on social media each day.”

Those who visited social media sites 58 times a week or more “had about triple the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.”

Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine add that increased social isolation has been associated with “an increased risk for mortality.”

"This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults," said lead author Dr. Brian A. Primack, director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. "We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalize us instead of bringing us together. While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for."

"We do not yet know which came first, the social media use or the perceived social isolation," said senior author Dr. Elizabeth Miller, professor of pediatrics at Pitt and chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

"It's possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media. Or it could be that their increased use of social media somehow led to feeling isolated from the real world. It also could be a combination of both. But even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations."

Researchers social media may cause feelings of social isolation by replacing “authentic social experiences;” causing feelings of exclusion stemming from seeing photos of friends having fun at events to which they were not invited; or may lead people to think others have happier or more successful lives due to often idealized presentation of one’s life online.

Researchers say more study needs to be done, but they say doctors should ask patients about social media use if they show symptoms of social isolation.

"People interact with each other over social media in many different ways," said Primack, "In a large population-based study such as this, we report overall tendencies that may or may not apply to each individual. I don't doubt that some people using certain platforms in specific ways may find comfort and social connectedness via social media relationships. However, the results of this study simply remind us that, on the whole, use of social media tends to be associated with increased social isolation and not decreased social isolation."

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