Nowadays we can hardly imagine our lives without social media, and Twitter and Facebook are part of our daily routine. A question that is often asked is if the time we spend in this way is in fact quality time.
More positive or more negative?
And now new research is suggesting that young people who spend a lot of time on social media – websites designed to bring people together – seem to be more isolated.
The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
On the other hand, Professor Jessica Vitak of the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland is of the opinion that the relationship between social media and mental health is far too complex to suggest that it has blanket effects across users.
“We need to look at the context of use and individual factors such as existing mental state to begin to understand whether one’s use of social media will have a more positive or more negative effect,” she explains in a previous Health24 article.
Social media not so social
The new study found that the heaviest users of social media had about twice the odds of feeling socially isolated compared to their less "web-connected" friends.
The findings "remind us that social media is not a panacea for people who feel socially isolated," said study lead author Dr Brian Primack. He's director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health.
Dr Primack said past research has suggested that people who use social media the most are especially isolated. But those studies have been small, he noted.
The new study is the first analysis of social media use and so-called social isolation in a large group of people from across the United States, according to Dr Primack.
But, at least one social media expert said the study leaves too many questions unanswered to offer people any practical advice.
The study included nearly 1 800 people aged 19 to 32. The participants completed a 20-minute online questionnaire in 2014. Half were female and 58% were white. More than one-third made at least $75,000 (±R970 000) a year. The participants, who had taken part in research before, received $15 (±R200) each for the survey.
Researchers asked questions about how isolated the participants felt and how often they used Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat and Reddit.
Those who used the services more often – either in terms of the number of times they used them or in total amount of time spent on them – were more likely to report feeling isolated from other people, the investigators found.
"Compared with those in the lowest quarter for frequently checking social media, people in the top quarter were about three times as likely to have increased social isolation," Dr Primack said. Those who checked the least visited social media sites less than nine times a week. Those who checked the most visited social media sites 58 or more times a week, the study authors said.
The average time spent on social media was 61 minutes a day. People who spent more than 121 minutes a day on social media had about twice the odds of feeling isolated than those spending less than 30 minutes a day on these sites, the findings showed.
Cause-and-effect not yet clear
The authors noted that the study had limitations. One is that it wasn't designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. And, it's not clear which came first – the social media use or the feelings of isolation, according to the researchers.
In addition, the study only looked at people aged 32 and under, so the findings may not be the same in older people.
Dr Primack also pointed out that the study examined people's use of social media as a whole, not specific sites. There's no way to know if people who read glowing posts about their friends' perfect vacations on Facebook are more or less isolated than those who prefer to watch YouTube videos of cats or bitterly argue about politics on Twitter.
If there's a link between social media use and isolation, what may be going on? "It may be that people who feel more socially isolated use a lot of social media to try to increase their social circles," Dr Primack suggested.
"But both directions may be at work. People who feel socially isolated may reach out on social media to 'self-medicate', but this may only serve to increase perceptions of social isolation," he added.
The findings suggest that people who feel isolated may generally be unable to find a connection through social media, Dr Primack said.
The answer may be going offline, he said.
"A much more valuable and robust way to deal with perceived social isolation would probably be to nurture true in-person social relationships," Dr Primack said. "Of course, social media remains a potentially powerful tool to help leverage those relationships. However, it is probably not such a strong replacement in and of itself."
Anatoliy Gruzd is an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who studies social media. Gruzd said the study is too limited and "cannot be reliably used to generate practical advice about isolation and social media use. There are still many unanswered questions and untested variables."
For example, "being active on Facebook may indicate one type of behavior, while being active on something like Snapchat might indicate a very different type of behaviour," he said.
"The study also does not account for the level and type of participation in social media. For example, one can spend hours on Facebook just to browse pictures posted by others, while another person may be using the same amount of time to actively post and connect with others on Twitter," Gruzd noted.
Social media health research needs ethics
Counsellors – the paramedics of the emotional world?
Why doctors and patients should not connect on Facebook