Does Social Media Make Us Lonely?

Updated on December 5, 2018

In the current technological age we live in socialization is becoming easier and more accessible over the internet. We are able to maintain constant contact with friends that live on the other side of the planet as if we see them every day. Social media has created a faceless social bond between us and our friends. Although, many social psychology experts question if social media is actually making us less social and even lonely.

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There has been a lot of scholarly research on connecting the subjects of social media, socialization, and loneliness. Except most of these works have been correlation studies and only investigated into raw data. Alternately, an experimental study was conducted on the social psychology of loneliness and the use of Facebook by Deters, et. al (2015) called “Does Posting Facebook Status Updates Increase or Decrease Loneliness? An Online Social Networking Experiment”. The hypothesis of this study was if increasing status updates on Facebook affected levels of loneliness. The researchers also wanted to know if increased status updates increase the feeling of connectives and if the number of responses to status updates affected loneliness. The researchers expected loneliness levels would decrease with an increased number of status updates because of previous correlational studies on active and passive uses of social media. Users that were actively posting on social media showed lower levels of loneliness compared to those that were passively viewing the status of other people (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007).

In this study, one hundred and two participants were selected from a pool of undergraduates at the University of Arizona. Every participant was selected based on the fact that they use Facebook. Sixteen of the participants' results were excluded for failing to follow directions or complete the task. Thirty seven participants were randomly assigned to the experimental group and forty-nine randomly assigned to the control group. Fifty-three of the participants were female and seventy-seven were between eighteen and twenty-two years old.

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The participants accepted a consent acknowledgment for the study. They were told that their Facebook profile would be analyzed and observed. An online pretest assessment was then emailed to all participants to be taken. A base range was collected on how lonely the participants felt in general through the combined data of various well-established psychology measures in the form of combined survey results. The 10-item version of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Loneliness scale (Russell, Peplau, & Ferguson, 1978), The 4-item Subjective Happiness scale (Lyubomirsky, & Lepper, 1999), and a short version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale (Andresen, Malmgren, Carter, & Patrick, 1994) was used to determine levels of loneliness. An experimental Facebook user page was created called “Research Profile” and all participants added this as the friend on Facebook. This allowed the researchers look at each participant's Facebook activity for the last two months and count the average posts the participants made on their status feed every day. For one week the experimental group was told to make more status updates on Facebook than they normally do. The control group was told to continue participating on Facebook as they normally do.

After the week was over, all participants were emailed the original measure surveys to complete again on loneliness. An additional survey measure was presented on the level of social connection using a 5-point Likert-type scale (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Kalil, Hughes, Waite & Thisted, 2008). The researchers accessed participants’ Facebook profiles from the ‘‘Research Profile’’ and saved the profile pages. The information from the saved profile pages included “number of friends, number of status updates during the intervention period, and number of responses received per status update during baseline as well as during the intervention period”. Lastly, the participants were invited to the lab for the debriefing. Their profiles were deleted from the friend's list of the ‘‘Research Profile”.

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Participants had an average of four hundred and ninety-five friends on Facebook. Of these friends, most were claimed to be real-world friend, a significant number were family, a few were co-workers or colleges, and a small few were supervisors or professors. Participants posted status updates of only two a week on average. The experimental group increased their posts to eight in a week on average. During this experiment, the control group changed their average weekly posting by less than one post than normal. This experimental group posted more than four hundred percent more than the control group. Five hundred and forty-five status updates were counted during the week for the participants, and only four hundred and twenty-eight received responses (likes or comments).

The combined scores of the various loneliness measures showed that the control group did not change scores in a week. The experimental group showed lower scores of loneliness after one week, but the difference was not considered statistically significant when including a margin of error. The feelings of connectives measure at the end of the week showed the experimental group had higher scores than the control group, in statistically significantly higher numbers. After analysis of the saved profiles, participants that received more feedback from their status (likes and comments), showed a significant lower level of loneliness. The general hypothesis was refuted, but the secondary two hypotheses were proven correct.

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In my opinion, this study was a fantastic example of the scientific method to explore social psychology in the technology era. Although, it was too small scoped and had third variable issues. Private messages, voice calls, video calls, emails, and face-to-face contact was not tracked during this study in comparison. The participants were only selected from mostly one age group, one location, and one occupation. One hundred and two participants were selected, but only results from eighty-six were recorded. The number of participants should have been much higher to increase validity. The study was only a week long should have been much longer, due to situational changes that occur day to day that could effect levels of loneliness. The content of the status updates was not investigated, and only quantified. Some participants could have been posting three hundred word updates, when some of them could have been writing a four word sentence. I was surprised that the average status updates of participants was so low before the study was conducted. Overall, this was a wonderful addition to the existing psychology research in social media. Hopefully it has sprung the formation of continued research into the damaging and redeeming effects of technology on human socialization. Further research should be conducted on this subject with a larger scope and a more longitudinal aspect.

References

  • Andresen, E. M., Malmgren, J. A., Carter,W. B., & Patrick, D. L. (1994). Screening for depression in well older adults: Evaluation of a short form of the CES-D (Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale). American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 10, 77–84.

  • Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Kalil, A., Hughes, M. E., Waite, L. J., & Thisted, R. A. (2008). Happiness and the invisible thread of social connection: The Chicago health, aging, and social relations study. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds.), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 195– 219). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

  • Deters, F. g., & Mehl, M. R. (2015). Does Posting Facebook Status Updates Increase or Decrease Loneliness? ; An Online Social Networking Experiment.

  • Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook ‘‘friends’’: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143–1168.

  • Lyubomirsky, S., & Lepper, H. (1999). A measure of subjective happiness: Preliminary reliability and construct validation. Social Indicators Research, 46, 137–155.

  • Russell, D., Peplau, L. A., & Ferguson, M. L. (1978). Developing a measure of loneliness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 42, 290–294.

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