Study: Attraction to social media is linked to a preference for social isolation

The “social” in social media may be a misnomer. New research published in Psychological Reports provides evidence that the use of social media is related to a preference for solitary activities rather than social ones.

“On my college campus and in everyday life in general, I noticed the incredible volume of digital media and cellphone use. The term ‘social media’ implies a social interaction, but most people seem to engage in the activity alone,” said study author Lauren Hill of Stony Brook University and the Lasell Cognition and Aging lab.

“We were interested in this topic to see if an individual’s initial desirability towards social media is related to the preference for socialization or isolation.”

In the study, 136 participants rated the desirability of 40 images. The images consisted of popular social media icons, scenes involving solitary activities, and scenes involving people in social activities. Traffic signs were also included as a control.

The researchers found a positive correlation between social media images and solitary images. In other words, participants who gave the social media images a high rating also tended to give the solitary images a high rating.

Those who rated the social media images as more desirable were also more likely to perceive social media as having a greater impact on their social life and to report spending more time on social media websites.

“The key takeaway is that the instant attraction to social media and social media-related visual cues may be linked to a preference for social isolation and visual cues that represent solitary activities. Social media by design seems to be inherently social, but partaking in the activity itself may lead to greater feelings of loneliness by limiting opportunities for real-life socialization,” Hill told PsyPost.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“There is always a slight margin of error when utilizing self-report measures relating to social media consumption. Despite this, similar findings have been echoed in other studies. What still needs to be asked is why are people using social media, and how does that relate to feelings of connection and isolation?” Hill explained.

“There are many positives and negatives related to social media use, especially for young people. What matters is the content and context of use, particularly when it is for extended periods of time. Social media can be beneficial in a number of different ways but how it is used is what makes the real difference.”

The study, “A Desire for Social Media Is Associated With a Desire for Solitary but Not Social Activities“, was authored by Lauren Hill and Zane Zheng.