The Dark Side Of The Digital Age

07/03/2017 15:38 GMT | Updated 08/03/2018 10:12 GMT

Whilst it may seem like we live in a more connected age than ever before - you can strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere around the world at the touch of your fingertips - in reality, we are more disconnected to each other and the world around us than we ever have been.

While social media can connect us to others and enable us to easily interact with family and friends, it can also intensify loneliness.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that people who used social media for more than two hours per day were twice as likely to feel socially isolated compared with those who only used social media for under half an hour each day.

The study investigated the social media use patterns of 1,787 adults aged between 19 and 32 in the United States, and took into account many social networking platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The study found a correlation between social media use and an increase in perceived social isolation, even after taking into account social and demographic factors that may have influenced the result.

As this was an observational study, the researchers are unable to state the exact cause for this result: "We do not yet know which came first - the social media use or the perceived social isolation," says senior author Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Ph.D., professor of paediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

"But even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations" explains Dr. Miller.

So, we know there's a link between social media use and feelings of loneliness. However the question is, do we turn to social media to fill the void of loneliness, or is it responsible for causing social isolation in the first place? The research may not give a solid answer, but its findings add fuel to a growing conversation around the negative effects social media has on our mental health.

The scientists offer several potential theories explaining the findings. One is that social media use displaces more authentic experiences because the more time a person spends online, the less time is left for real-world interactions.

Another theory suggests that social media encourages feelings of exclusion: seeing photos of friends enjoying themselves at an event they themselves are not invited to can increase feelings of isolation and social exclusion.

A further explanation is that people may feel envious at the picture-perfect, idealised representations of other people's lives. Seeing these perfect sun-always-shines shots can cause people to think that their own life is dull in comparison.

We tend to turn to social media when bored; if you ever look around you whilst you're sat on a train, the bus or in a waiting room, you're bound to see most people looking down at their phones. Whilst social media may momentarily distract us from the temporary boredom of our own lives, it doesn't function to fill that void; it simply widens it.

A previous study from the University of Houston found similar results between mental health and Facebook use. It suggests that social comparison paired with the amount of time spent on Facebook may be linked to depressive symptoms. 

Researcher Mai-Ly Steers from the University of Houston states that "It doesn't mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand".

The concept of social comparison is not new. However having the tool to enable comparison at your fingertips may make people feel worse, more often, as they can compare every minute of every day if they choose to.

For people with emotional difficulties, or those who are susceptible to depressive symptoms, the distorted version of reality they see on social media may make them feel more alone with their internal struggles. If everyone else seems to be happy all the time, to be at exciting events or on amazing travel adventures, seeing it can amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation.

What we need to remember is that social media is a constant stream of other people's highlight reels: it is not an accurate representation of real life. It's often edited, posed for and not at all authentic. How many times have you taken 4, 5 or even 10+ selfies before finding one you think won't look 'too bad' when it has been edited? Our own experience with this careful curation of content should really make us aware that everyone else does it too, yet that doesn't seem to stop us from being affected by other people's posts.

We still compare ourselves to our peers - and even to strangers - we follow on social network sites.

If you feel like social media is taking over your life, check out my recommendations for how to reduce the amount of time you spend browsing.