Does Social Media Make Us Less Lonely… or More?

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

From May 9th to May 15th, 2022, it’s Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. And this year’s theme is ‘Loneliness’. I recently explored why loneliness is indeed bad for mental health. But, as many pointed out, there was one glaring omission in my post; any mention of social media.

At this point, the odds of anyone reading this having no form of social media profile are increasingly small, what with half the human race having an account on at least one platform.

So, it begs the question; in a world where technology can connect us to half the planet’s population at the touch of a button, how can anyone possibly be lonely? 

The answer to that is… complex.

Online friends are real

I’ve said it repeatedly, but you can’t really overstate just how social humans are, and how much of our brains are dedicated to communicating, and forming and maintaining relationships, with other people. 

That’s why social media has proven to be such a popular invention; our brains really like it when we engage and connect with other humans (as long as it’s not in a negative way), and social media means we can do this more than ever, without the limits, risks, and effort involved in face-to-face interaction.

But these connections, are they ‘meaningful’? In many ways, yes. 

One consequence of being such a social species is that that our brains are often overly eager to form a connection with someone, even based on the merest scraps of information about them. That’s why people can be catfished so often; someone’s persona being limited to a few words on a screen may not sound like much, but if they’re the right words, the human brain will readily fill in the gaping blanks and fall for them, in . 

Thankfully, most people online aren’t cynical scammers. But the same principles apply; our brains happily form emotionally-rewarding connections based purely on someone’s profile page or Twitter feed. Indeed, while it used to be a go-to punchline, meeting ‘online’ is the basis of countless modern romantic relationships. 

Heck, our brains don’t need the person we’re connecting with to engage with us at all. Celebrities, Instagram influencers, YouTubers, even fictional characters who don’t exist in any real sense; whatever form they come in, these individuals often have millions who feel personally connected to them. But it’s not mutual; they’ve no clue about the lives and identities of those who appreciate them. 

This is what we call a parasocial relationship; one person is emotionally invested in another person, but the latter person has no investment at all. It’s entirely one way. And while it can certainly go too far, parasocial relationships can be beneficial too.

They’re not a product of the modern age, either. We’ve been forming meaningful relationships that exist entirely within our head for millennia, as anyone who’s had an imaginary friend will know. Adolescent crushes and infatuations are also parasocial relationships. And as tumultuous and experience as they often are, they’re essentially our brain’s way of ‘practising’ for forming genuine romantic connections, without having to go through repeated trial and error. 

So, forming meaningful connections via social media is something our brains are more than happy to do. So that should be the end of loneliness, right?


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…but not as real as ‘real-world’ ones

While it may be true that the relationships formed entirely online can be genuine and rewarding, evidence suggests they aren’t as rewarding and meaningful as those forged in the real world.

As Dunbar’s number suggests, we lack the brain space to be equally emotionally invested in many thousands of people at once, something social media feasibly allows for. This is why we have different levels and categories of friends. We have work friends, school friends, friends of the family, social friends from sports teams we’re part of, friends you have because your kids are friends with their kids, and so on.

But first and foremost, you have your close friends. Those few individuals you’ve known for years, trust implicitly, share anything with, whose company you enjoy for days on end. Many people are lucky enough to have a few friends like this, but it’s only ever a few.

Because the emotional and mental effort involved in maintaining these relationships is considerable. They require a lot of work. Work you’re often happy to put in, sure. You may not even realise it is work. But it is.

And it seems to be harder for our brains to invest as much, emotionally, in online connections. Social media can seemingly expand and enhance our ‘mid-level’ relationships, but it doesn’t seem to have much impact on the rarer, deeper, more supportive relationships we can form, and, quite often, end up depending on.

Why? Well, eager as it may seem to connect with someone’s digital presence, our brain hasn’t evolved to do that. Human interpersonal communication, which leads to empathy and emotional connections, is an exquisitely complex process, involving a rich variety of data. The words we say are just one small part of it. Our tone, inflection, facial expression, stance, gestures, posture, movements, all of these and more play vital roles in how we interact, and connect, with others.

Unfortunately, even the best technology can’t convey the full suite of information that our brains have evolved to expect from real world interactions. A Zoom call only captures a part of what who we’re talking to is actually conveying; you can only do so much from a 2D screen, where you’re invisible from the chest down.

Perhaps this is one aspect where the low effort and low risk of social media works against it; we’re always more invested in the things we work hard for.   

So, can social media make us less lonely, or what?

According to the data we have, the relationships we form via social media can easily be meaningful, but they’re unlikely to be as meaningful as the closest friendships we form in the real world. And those are often most effective in preventing loneliness.

Some draw a distinction between social loneliness (a lack of general contact with others), and emotional loneliness (lacking supportive emotional relationships no matter how many people you engage with. The latter can explain why big celebrities often feel sad and alone; if the people they’re constantly surrounded by are all staff, yes-men, and hangers-on, there won’t be any real emotional connection with them. And so, loneliness creeps in, even though you’re at the centre of a crowd.

This may explain why social media, where you’re immersed in a sea of people but with few potent emotional links to them, has limited ability to prevent loneliness. But then, ‘limited’ is not the same as ‘none’. Social media was all we had during lockdown, and evidence suggests it provided a useful stopgap for staving off loneliness. But interacting with others exclusively via social media is seemingly not enough for our brains, in the long term.

Maybe it’s like a diet of vitamin pills and protein powders; you can persist on this for a while, and it’s not ‘wrong’ per se, but that’s not what our digestive systems have evolved to do, and it won’t be happy about the situation.

However, in reality, the impact social media use has on loneliness (and therefore mental health) is complex and variable. Some studies suggest visual Instagram is much better than text-based Twitter for staving off loneliness, presumably because photos give our brains more to work with than words. But then, the ability of Twitter to fuel influential emotional connections can’t be ignored.

Some studies show that teens who reduce their social media use actually feel less lonely, and happier. Other studies suggest the opposite. And some say it has little to no impact at all. Surely they can’t all be right?

Except perhaps they can. Because it seems it often comes down to who is using social media, and how, and on what platform. Passively observing other people’s output without contributing anything can make you feel even more lonely, as you become hyper-aware of just how many people there are who aren’t engaging with you. But if you actively put stuff out there, and people respond, you feel connected, and appreciated.

Even age is a factor; research suggests social media use often affects loneliness in adolescents, but much less so in older people. This makes a certain sense; younger people have grown up communicating with others via social media, whereas for older people it’snew and unfamiliar. Their brains don’t grasp it as well as younger people’s, so the odds of forming helpful emotional connections are further reduced.

Basically, the relationships we form on social media can be meaningful and rewarding and allow us to feel less lonely, but it depends on how much you’re willing and able to invest in them. In this, at least, they’re just like the real-world sort.

For more insights into the fundamental science of mental health, check out Dean Burnett’s latest book, Psycho-Logical. Or if you want to know more about how social media impacts on mental health, try Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall And What To Do About It. Signed copies of all Dean’s books are on sale right now at the Shambles Shop.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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