Social media just can’t get a break in social science research. In particular, the link between using social media and increased feelings of loneliness continues getting a lot of attention, and keeps getting stronger (at least according to one interpretation, which we’ll discuss in a minute). The latest study to take on the topic looked at both positive and negative social media experiences, finding the link to loneliness strongest on one side of the equation, though many questions remain.

The study focused on university students, ages 18-30, and wasn’t platform-specific, but instead included social media use on whichever platforms the students used most. Researchers surveyed the students about their social media use, specifically about whether their experiences were positive or negative, and also asked them about their levels of “perceived loneliness.”

Loneliness is a little tricky in these studies because it’s usually not defined as true social isolation, but rather as the feeling of being lonely. As a raft of previous research has established, it’s possible to be surrounded by people most of the day and still feel lonely.  The perception of loneliness—of lacking meaningful connections—is what seems to drive other negative emotions the most.

This study showed that for every 10% increase in negative experiences on social media, the participants reported a 13% increase in feelings of loneliness. Conversely, for every 10% increase in positive experiences on social media, the participants reported no statistically significant change in feelings of loneliness.

These findings suggest, first, that negative experiences on social media carry much more psychological weight than positive ones. That’s not surprising, considering that in general we tend to focus more on negative interactions than positive ones, and negativity has more staying power in memory.

“There is a tendency for people to give greater weight to negative experiences and traits compared with positive ones, and this may be particularly relevant when it comes to social media,” said study co-author Jaime Sidani, PhD. “So, positive experiences on social media may be associated with fleeting positive reinforcement, while negative experiences may rapidly escalate and leave a lasting, potentially traumatic impression.”

The findings also touch on the classic interpretation problem that applies to most social media effects studies: are negative social media experiences causing increased feelings of loneliness, or are people more susceptible to loneliness attracted to the negative dimensions of social media? The direction of the effect arrow isn’t easy to see, especially since it’s possible for both of those things to be true.

The researchers controlled for several other factors in an attempt to zero in on a strong correlation, including sex, age, race/ethnicity, educational status, relationship status, and living situation. Nevertheless, this was a survey that relied on self-reporting, so there’s unavoidable ambiguity in the results. 

But when added to the body of research showing a link between social media use and feelings of loneliness—particularly social media with a negative bent—it’s difficult to deny that there’s something up.  Which way the effect arrow goes is still in question, but a link surfaces often enough to conclude one exists.

On the other hand, we can’t forget about research that’s found quite the opposite. While often overshadowed by studies finding negative effects, some have found that using social media decreases feelings of loneliness. Making matters more complicated, research has also found that social media use both increases and decreases loneliness, which says much about the emotional situation people bring to the experience to begin with  again, the spinning effect arrow confounds an easy interpretation.

So this is anything but a closed case, but with respect to people who are experiencing more perceived loneliness from negative social media experiences, the problem is real enough.

“Perceived social isolation is associated with poor health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and depression,” said lead study author Brian Primack, MD, PhD. “Because social media is so pervasive, it is critically important that we better understand why this is happening and how we can help people navigate social media without as many negative consequences.”

The study was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter, FacebookGoogle Plus, and at his website, daviddisalvo.org.

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