Nearly 70% of U.S. adults have at least one social media account, and the average American internet user has seven. It would appear Americans are more socially connected than ever, yet 1 in 5 report often or always feeling lonely. This paradox has led many to ask, “Does social media cause or influence social isolation?” The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
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Statistics of Social Media Usage and Isolation in the U.S.
Social media platforms have advanced well beyond the early days of MySpace and functionally limited chat rooms. Today, social media users have a plethora of platforms and features at their fingertips.
Staggering Social Media Statistics
About 3.5 billion people use social media, and more than 1 million people open a social media account every day. Individuals with access to digital devices spend nearly 2.5 hours on social media every day. 88% of Americans 18- to 29-years-old use social media, and 51% of 18- to 24-year-olds state social media is hard to give up.
In 2019, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram held the largest share of usage for adults and 18-to-24-year-olds, although a substantially higher amount of the latter demographic used Instagram. 73% of the latter demographic also used Snapchat, as opposed to just 24% of adults.
Loneliness and Social Isolation
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Loneliness is defined by people’s levels of satisfaction with their connectedness, or their perceived social isolation.” Social isolation can be defined as “a state in which an individual lacks a sense of true belonging, true engagement with others, and fulfilling relationships.” In a 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22% of American adult respondents reported often or always feeling lonely, a lack of companionship, left out, or isolated from others.
Respondents also said their loneliness had negatively impacted various aspects of their lives. The majority of individuals reporting loneliness were under 50 years old and either single or divorced. Individuals reporting loneliness are more likely to be experiencing a debilitating physical or mental health condition, are dissatisfied with their personal financial situation, or recovering from a recent negative life event. These individuals are also more likely to have fewer confidants and fewer or no nearby relatives or friends.
Does Social Media Create Isolation?
Researchers have identified the negative effects of social isolation on physical and mental health, but is there a casual connection to social media?
Potential Causes and Negative Effects of Social Isolation
Researchers have found that a lack of social connection increases health risks to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day or having alcohol use disorder. They’ve also discovered that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity and increase the risk of premature mortality. Other evidence has linked perceived social isolation with signs such as depression, impaired executive function, impaired immunity at every life stage, and poor sleep quality. Possible factors influencing the increasing rates of loneliness and social isolation include a rise in adults living alone, decreases in marriage rates and the number of children per household, and a decline in religious affiliations.
Is There a Connection?
Social media usage can help alleviate social isolation by connecting individuals because of their physical environment with others online. It can also facilitate the formation of support systems for individuals with rare or stigmatizing conditions. However, social media usage may also have negative impacts on social isolation by substituting social media usage for face-to-face social interactions, or by exposing individuals to unrealistic or distorted portrayals of connections’ lives, leading to feelings of social isolation.
A study of 19- to 32-year-olds revealed a strong linear association between increased social media usage and increase perceived social isolation. Researchers noted that one explanation for the results may be that socially isolated individuals tend to spend more time on social media, while other studies have found that many online users aren’t able to turn online interactions into “real” social relationships. Bottom line: studies have revealed that the relationship between social media and social isolation is complex, and that social isolation cannot be entirely attributed to social media usage.
How Social Workers Address Social Isolation
Social isolation is a complex issue without a clear or simple solution. That’s why social workers must collaborate with other professionals to research the dynamics of social isolation and develop effective solutions.
What Social Workers Can Do
As part of a strategy to address social isolation, social workers should collaborate with other professionals, like epidemiologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and health service researchers. These collaborations should focus on such goals as identifying at-risk populations, developing and testing societal interventions across various disciplinary skills, and conducting research on areas influencing social isolation, such as transportation barriers or community connectors.
Why Social Workers?
Social workers can help with addressing social isolation because they’re uniquely connected to housing, transportation, and community resources. They also bring an ecological and systems perspective to how individuals interact with their environments. Additionally, they’re trained to connect with people emotionally.
Despite the prevalence of social media, achieving true connection online can be difficult. The role of social media in the increasing rates of adults’ social isolation is complicated, but one thing is clear: Social workers are uniquely positioned to raise awareness and facilitate authentic and in-person relationships in their communities.