Social Networks and Loneliness

February 9, 2010

David DiSalvo in Scientific American Mind January/February 2010, examines linkages among social networking, social anxiety, narcissism, and loneliness among other topics. DiSalvo makes the observation that “As social networks proliferate, they are changing the way people think about the Internet, from a tool used in solitary anonymity to a medium that touches on questions about human nature and identity: who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and how we act toward one another.”

Some of the early conclusions about people who used the internet for social interaction claimed that the experience made people even lonelier. Social networks were robbing people of face-to-face interactions, promoting more disconnection and isolating people from healthy relationships this argument went.

More recent, better controlled studies have shown this ominous prediction to be unfounded. A 2006 study by University of Sydney psychologists ” . . . found that the amount of time spent interacting online is unrelated to higher levels of anxiety or depression – typical cohorts of loneliness.” A 2008 study by California State University, Los Angeles psychologists found much the same thing “Neither total amount of time spent online nor time spent communicating online correlated with increased loneliness.”

What was particularly interesting to me was that while social networks don’t make people more lonely, they also don’t make people less lonely. This finding was established with studies that used imaging techniques to examine the human brain while people viewed both positive and negative images. People who scored high on a loneliness measure were shown to have a greater brain response to unpleasant images of people, “suggesting the attention of lonely people is especially drawn to human distress.” The point is that they carry this mindset with them when they visit social networks: someone who doesn’t respond immediately to their chat post must be ridiculing them behind their back, only having 15 or 20 online friends when others have 50 or 60 must mean that people really don’t like them, and so on.

The conclusion in this line of research seemed to be that “the social networkers who fare the best are the ones who use the technology to support their existing friendships.” It seems that we bring our real life persona online with us; people with poor social skills might try to become outgoing and friendly online but will have a difficult time maintaining that unfamiliar persona. “Social networks might not make people anxious and fearful, but if they feel that way to begin with, others will know soon enough.” There is a lot more to say about the influence of social networks, but that’s enough for now!