Can social media increase well-being and reduce social isolation?

Whether we are standing in line at the grocery store or simply feeling bored, many of us have experienced that itch to check our Facebook or Instagram page.  Eagerness overcomes us as we check comments or likes from a recent post, maybe we feel a twinge of excitement as we passively scroll through the endless feed. Finally, we are distracted by the real world, or perhaps realize too much time has passed, and we pull ourselves away from our screen.  How do we feel?
According to Facebook data, there are over 1.4 billion people actively using Facebook on a daily basis, with over 2 billion monthly users worldwide.  There is undoubtedly something alluring about social media, with some even describing it as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. While we are slowly becoming more aware of the privacy issues surrounding social media, it may be an appropriate time to consider the effects Facebook, as well as other social media platforms, may be having on our well being.
A 2014 study series looked at mood immediately after spending time on Facebook. They examined 123 adults who answered a three -minute questionnaire, accessed directly on the Facebook page of a research assistant. Participants were asked how long they had just spent on Facebook, as well as questions on general Internet usage, and their current mood. The 20-item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS, a commonly employed tool in psychological research, was used to assess mood. Results showed that the longer participants had just spent on Facebook, the lower they rated their mood.
The study series then investigated mood difference between those browsing the Internet and those that spent the same amount of time on Facebook.  Using an online survey, they reached 263 people. One group was asked to spend twenty minutes browsing Facebook, the second group was asked to spend twenty minutes browsing the Internet, and a third proceeded straight to the questionnaire. The survey not only looked at the PANAS mood rating but also asked questions regarding how meaningful and worthwhile people felt their activity had been.
The authors found that the Facebook group reported lower moods than the Internet group. They also noted that the diminished mood was correlated by the feeling of time not spent meaningfully- suggesting that if participants had felt the time spent on Facebook was worthwhile, their moods would be improved.
While the study series is certainly limited in sample size, reporting bias, and subjective nature, larger studies have since brought about similar findings.  One recent study examined 5,208 subjects who gave researchers permission to access their Facebook usage data. The three-year longitudinal study gave researchers objective information, such as how often subjects they liked posts, clicked on links, or posted status updates.  The participants also answered three annual surveys with questions focused on real world social networks, as well as physical and mental health, life satisfaction and BMI. The robust data ultimately showed that use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. In fact, the more posts someone liked, the lower they reported their mental health.

What about the social benefits of connecting with others via social media?

We recently discussed the importance of positive social relationships in happiness, so one may wonder if the same benefit can be acquired from social media.  While there are scenarios where social media may increase social support, such as connecting individuals with certain medical conditions, overall research has shown this is not always the case.
The three-year longitudinal study mentioned above found that real-world social networks (live rather than online) had a positive association with overall well-being, while the use of Facebook had the opposite effect.  Another study used a survey to investigate feelings of social isolation among 1,787 adults between ages 19-32. Those with the highest social media use, both in time spent and frequency, were found to have 2-3 times the odds of perceived social isolation than those with the lowest social media use. Of course, this is a correlational study, so one may argue that those who are already feeling socially isolated tend to use social media more. Another potential explanation is that social media is taking away opportunities for real face-to-face interactions, or that seeing the curated experiences of other peoples life may leave us feeling unfulfilled or left out.

What is the best advice to avoid any potential negative effects?

It is once again important to note that the mentioned studies are limited in their subjective nature, sample sizes, and correlational nature. Everyone has a different level of engagement in social media, and if you find your time and experience to be meaningful, then there may be no need to change.
I found myself feeling quite addicted to my social media pages and wasn’t necessarily feeling fulfilled in the time spent. Deleting the apps from my phone (Facebook and Instagram) was a good way to ensure I only accessed the sites when I really wanted to, rather than out of habit. There was some initial anxiety about missing posts or not supporting friends with my “like”, but this faded and I found it did not affect any of my relationships. I have now found a happy medium where I am able to engage or disengage of my own accord.
Check in with yourself and loved ones. How do you/they feel before and after logging on? If there is any uncertainty, perhaps try a period of abstinence; commit to a full day, or even a week of minimal to no logging on. As long as you take time to check in and gain awareness of how social media affects you, you are being a conscious and healthy user!


  1. Hofmann W, Vohs D, Baumeister R. What People Desire, Feel Conflicted About, and Try to Resist in Everyday Life. Psychological Science. 2012: 23(6): 582-588.
  2. Sagioglou C, Greitemeyer T. Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it. Computers in Human Behavior. 2014: 35: 359-363
  3. Shakya H, Christakis N. Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well Being: A longitudinal study. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2017: 185(3): 203-211
  4. Primack B, Shensa A, Sidani J, et al. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2017: 53(1): 1-8
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Negean Afifi MD
Articles: 6

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