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Are negative experiences on social media making us feel lonelier?

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Image: bombuscreative/IStock.com via AFP Relaxnews

New United States research has found that not only are positive interactions on social media failing to make us feel more connected, but negative interactions can lead to even greater feelings of loneliness.

Carried out by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media Technology and Health (MTH), the new study included 1,178 students ages 18 to 30 who were asked to report on what percentage of their social media experiences involved positive and negative experiences.

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Participants’ levels of perceived loneliness were also measured using an established scale.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, showed that after controlling for sociodemographic factors such as educational status, relationship status, and living situation, for every 10 percent increase in positive experiences on social media, there was no statistically significant change in feelings of loneliness.

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Moreover, for every 10 percent increase in negative experiences on social media, the participants reported a 13 percent increase in feelings of loneliness.

The results build on previous research from the same center, which suggested that an increased use of social media was associated with increased feelings of loneliness.

“Social media is, seemingly, about connecting people. So it is surprising and interesting that our investigations reveal social media being linked to loneliness,” said lead author Brian Primack, M.D., Ph.D. “Perceived social isolation, which is a synonym for loneliness, is associated with poor health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. 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.”

Author Jaime Sidani, Ph.D., also added that it is still not clear whether those who are feeling lonely seek out or attract negative experiences on social media, or if it is having negative experiences that leads to more feelings of loneliness.

“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,” explains Sidani. “So, positive experiences on social media may be associated with fleeting positive reinforcement, while negative experiences, such as public social media arguments, may rapidly escalate and leave a lasting, potentially traumatic impression.”

“It also may be that socially isolated people lean toward social media use that involves negative interactions. It is probably a mix of both,” Sidani added.

The researchers add that more studies are now needed to replicate the findings, however results are strong enough for health care practitioners to encourage awareness of the potential problems when using social media use. JB

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