Is social media making us lonely?

The Pontif has decreed that social media is making us lonely. In a recent sermon to bishops in Pennsylvania, Pope Francis declared the virtual circles of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are at the root of society’s ‘radical loneliness’.

“I would dare say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of radical loneliness that so many people live in today ... running after the latest fad: a ‘like’, accumulating followers on any of the social networks”.

With more than seven million followers on Twitter himself, the Vatican’s top dog lamented the narcissistic culture of chasing acceptance and approval through social media, which he believes prevents genuine connection with others.

"Today's culture seems to encourage people to not bond with anything or anyone," said Francis. The 266th Roman Catholic pope added, “Today consumerism determines what is important, consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions. Social bonds are a mere means for satisfaction of my needs.”

Our densely networked digital lives are more prevalent than ever before – 1.44 billion users on Facebook, 400 million users on Instagram, and 316 million users on Twitter – with Deloitte’s 2015 media consumer survey showing that 59 per cent of Australians use social media daily, up from 27 per cent in 2013.

But are we happy scrolling through people’s finely crafted image of themselves, chatting in emoticons and throwaway lines? The research is on the Pope’s side, with studies that show one click communication can still leave us feeling lonely.

Loneliness researcher John Cacioppo, the director of the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at Chicago University says social networking does not replace the comforting touch of a friend.

In comparing the frequency of interactions via social networks like Facebook, Dr Cacioppo found that the more frequent our online exchanges, the greater sense of isolation. He says it’s a myth to think that digital networks are giving us new friends and a way to connect – they’re simply reflecting what already exists in our real world lives.

It seems society has become lonelier over the last decade, alongside the rise of social media. A 2010 AARP survey confirmed the spike reporting 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, more than twice as many as 10 years ago.

In a national survey a quarter century ago, Americans had three confidants. That number has dropped to zero, which Dr Cacioppo says is proving lethal. “A recent meta analysis of 100,000 people showed living with loneliness increases your odds of an early death by 45 per cent.” – more than obesity, more than excessive drinking.

Without support groups, our health can take a huge hit, with studies linking loneliness to poor immune function, elevated blood pressure, higher levels of stress hormones, poorer sleep quality, obesity, alcoholism and drug abuse.

“Because loneliness diminishes the brain’s executive functioning, it is more difficult for people who feel lonely to control impulses, such as succumbing to a guilty pleasure rather than exercising or eating a healthy diet,” says Dr Cacioppo.

A study from RMIT University revealed that while Facebook users tend to be more extroverted and narcissistic, they are also less conscientious and socially lonely, than non-users.

“One of the most noteworthy findings was the tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals,” concluded Dr Sophia Xenos, health science lecturer at RMIT.

“For lonely people in particular, it appears they are mainly using Facebook to partake in passive activities, instead of providing active social contributions.” It seems anyone on the sidelines in real life isn’t feeling any happier or connected no matter how long they spend being online voyeurs.

But not all social media networks are equal when it comes to engagement. A recent study by the University of Oregon found that while there was no correlation between loneliness and Facebook usage among 400 surveyed students, the more students created and consumed content on Twitter and Instagram, the more reported loneliness decreased.

Clinical psychologist Dr Tegan Cruwys at the Univeristy of Queensland says her research has found that social connections are most protective against depression when you identify with a group of people. “It's not necessarily whether you see people in person or virtually that counts, it's whether you really care about the group of people involved.”

She says it’s important to look at the context in which you find ‘your people’ on social media. “For example, for a teenager who feels different and isolated living in a rural town, social media can be a way to connect with others who make your feel like your belong.

The same is true for people who might be too socially anxious to open up to strangers in person. So while social media may not be the "optimal" way to connect socially, the online environment can be game-changing for some people in a very positive way,” says Dr Cruwys.

In her research into the link between our social lives and mental health, Dr Cruwys says one of the most powerful protectors against loneliness and depression is to feel like you belong – whether that’s a friendship circle, a sporting or hobby club, or group fitness.

“What we have found is that social connections are most protective (eg against depression) when they make you feel part of something bigger - when you identify with a group of people.”

Click here to watch Dr John Cacioppo's TEDx talk on The Lethality of Loneliness

Katie Cincotta began as the national writer for television game show Sale of the Century, and went on to be a magazine editor before starting her own freelance business. She writes about health, lifestyle, fashion, and technology for publications including The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Coast, Women’s Health and Dogs Life.

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