PhotoThe Mark Zuckerbergs of the world see themselves as bringing people together, but a new study finds that social media, like Zuckerberg's Facebook, can actually contribute to social isolation among young adults.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that the more time a young adult uses social media, the more likely they are to feel socially isolated.

The finding, published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggests that social media does not help reduce perceived social isolation -- when a person lacks a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others, and fulfilling relationships.

Social isolation has been independently associated with an increased risk for mortality, including suicide.

Social creatures

"This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults," said lead author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, and assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt's Schools of the Health Sciences.

"We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalize us instead of bringing us together. While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for," Primack said.

In 2014, Primack and his colleagues sampled 1,787 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine time and frequency of social media use by asking about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.

They found that participants who used social media more than two hours a day had twice the odds for perceived social isolation than their peers who spent less than half an hour on social media each day. And participants who visited various social media platforms 58 or more times per week had about triple the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.

Which came first?

"We do not yet know which came first -- the social media use or the perceived social isolation," said senior author Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at Pitt and chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

"It's possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media. Or it could be that their increased use of social media somehow led to feeling isolated from the real world. It also could be a combination of both," Miller said. "But even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations."

Among the researchers' theories is that using social media displaces authentic social experiences simply by taking up time that could otherwise be used in real-world interactions. 

Also, some aspects of social media contribute to feelings of being excluded -- like seeing photos of friends having fun at an event to which one was not invited. 

The researchers said doctors should ask patients about their social media use -- just as they ask them about smoking, alcohol, diet, and other activities -- and counsel them to reduce their time online if it seems linked to symptoms of social isolation.

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