BYU–Idaho Study Links Loneliness to Social Media Use

Contributed By Sarah Jane Weaver, Church News editor

  • 17 November 2017

A new study conducted by LDS students at Brigham Young University–Idaho found the more time a person spends on social media, the more likely they are to be lonely.

Article Highlights

  • Social media increases feelings of loneliness.
  • People get too dependent on “likes” for validation.
  • Good can come from social media if we use it wisely.

“The world usually is just not as bright as it appears on social media. Nevertheless, there is much good that has, and will, come through these new communication platforms.” —Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

The more time a person spends on social media, the more likely they are to be lonely, according to a new study conducted among Latter-day Saint students at Brigham Young University–Idaho.

The study found that as daily social media time increased for participants, so did “perceived loneliness and depressive symptoms,” including feeling alone, blue, lacking motivation, or having a hard time sleeping, said Robert R. Wright, director of the Health Psychology Emphasis in the BYU–Idaho Psychology Department.

“The main message here is that we need to use social media wisely,” said Wright.

He said the recent rise in social media use has presented opportunity for more frequent social interactions to occur with larger social networks than ever before.

However, contrary to conventional wisdom that social media—including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, SnapChat, and others—connects users to others, research shows users feel increasingly isolated as their time on social media increases.

The study—which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science—included 579 Latter-day Saint students who filled out online surveys detailing the time they spend each day on social media and their social outcomes.

Wright said the objective of the study was to determine the relationship between social media and health variables among LDS students at BYU–Idaho.

Although the study included subjects age 18 to 54, the average respondent was 22 and spent between 45 and 150 minutes on social media a day.

Wright said as a result of the study, researchers found support that social media led to loneliness, instead of being an antecedent for it.

As participants saw what other people were posting—especially about their social life—they realized their life was not “not as good as they want it to be or it is not ideal.”

On average, women—single, engaged, or married—consistently reported much more time on social media than men, said Wright. “Similarly, women reported being more lonely than the men.”

Further, the study showed that those who are single, both men and women, have higher reports of loneliness. “When they got engaged, the loneliness dropped off remarkably, just as did their social media use,” he added.

The take-home message: “The less daily time you spend on social media, the healthier you will be—physically, mentally, and socially,” said Wright.

Wright said the study supports the concerns of Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who has spoken this year of the “idealized reality and debilitating comparisons” resulting from social media.

“The world usually is just not as bright as it appears on social media,” he said during BYU Women’s Conference on May 5. “Nevertheless, there is much good that has, and will, come through these new communication platforms.” (Read the full address.)

Wright also said his research shows that social media has positive outcomes.

“Some studies suggest that some people derive social support benefits from Facebook, for example,” he said. “Having friends, having people like their statuses, that is good. But I have also seen, as people start to depend upon getting those likes, when they don’t come in, the negative or absence of likes is stronger.”

Absence of positive interactions (receiving likes) on social media is stronger than when the positive interactions occur, he said.

“We need to encourage the responsible use of social media, both in the classroom and home settings,” said Wright.

Kolby Hardy, a study participant and Wright’s research assistant, said the data told a different story than the one he was expecting regarding the relationship between social media and loneliness.

“I wondered why people would feel lonely if they’re using social media so often when social media claims to keep people in touch.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that social media has become an inadequate substitute for genuine interaction,” Hardy said. “Rather than reaching out to family by paying a visit or making phone call, we settle for liking a photo. Social media is the ‘empty calorie’ of communication. We can use it all we like, but at the end of the day we’ll be hungry for human interaction.”

Rhett Mullins, also a study participant and Wright’s research assistant, said it was interesting to look at the relationship between social media and loneliness when examining LDS students specifically.

“For me, it demonstrates that even in a church with so many programs that focus on social inclusion, we are not free from feelings of loneliness,” he said. “In fact, the importance that we place on traditional families might make those that do not feel like they are following the normal path more susceptible to loneliness. This may be why we found that single individuals at Brigham Young University–Idaho reported higher feelings of perceived loneliness than those that were married or engaged.”

Social media exposes individuals to “idealized personal relationships” because people often only report the best moments, he said. “Because of this, the distance between where we see ourselves and where we think we should be becomes even greater, possibly leading to loneliness.”