In recent years there has been a growing development of the Internet and more specifically of social networks, creating a new channel of socialization with increasing effects, both positive and negative. Social networks are worth studying from a social perspective, and if we focus on the analysis of their consequences, we can detect a great social impact.
On the one hand, researchers argue that networked life contributes to an “incomplete” lifestyle that detaches people from in-person contact by enveloping them in a virtual simulacrum of reality, thus disconnecting them from their families, friends and communities. Thus, the more “pessimistic” perspective believes that this fosters a postmodern world plagued by anomie and loneliness.
On the other hand, researchers argue that the Internet and social networks facilitate new forms of voluntary community building based on shared interests and would even form a relational basis for increased face-to-face contact. And thus, the “optimistic” perspective advocates that they are a resource that offers new opportunities to meet people and increases the efficiency and speed of interactions.
The following highlights some interesting scientific data on both viewpoints presented above:
Data from one of so many studies tell us that social isolation is closely related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICT); addiction – at all levels of severity – to ICT supports (mobiles, tablets, etc.), social support, psychoemotional and somatic symptoms and the degree of participation in social groups are significantly associated and predictable by the level of social isolation. Specifically, Al-Kandari and Al-Sejari (2021) find that the high level of social support has a lower mean when there are general health symptoms, and more specifically psychological symptoms, related to the misuse of ICT supports referred to the use of the Internet and social networks. Likewise, it was found that the greater the social support – outside the world of the Internet, i.e. “in real life” – the better the psychological and emotional health, etc. of the person and the lower the degree of use of social networks, and thus the greater the participation in social groups.
Similarly, another study revealed that problematic use of social networks is significantly associated with a decrease in social support in “real life” and with a decrease in social support in real life and an increase in social support in social networks. Social support in “real life” was also associated with a reduction in depression, anxiety and thus social isolation, whereas social support in social networks was not associated with the values now described (Meshi and Ellithorpe, 2021).
However, some research supports the idea that social networks help mitigate social isolation for a variety of reasons, some of which have already been mentioned above. One such study by Yu et al. (2016) showed a link between the use of social networking sites and an increased sense of connectedness and that social networking use was not associated with feelings of social isolation. Another study conducted by Aarts, Peek and Wouters (2015) revealed that the use of these sites was not associated with general loneliness nor with social or emotional loneliness, and, yet another by Hajek and König (2019), showed that social network users obtained lower levels of social isolation compared to those with less or no social network use. (cited in Hajek and König, 2021).
Other studies, however, provide data in favor of the “optimistic” perspective and other counterparts belonging more to the “pessimistic” perspective. One of them is based on two hypotheses, one of increase and the other of displacement in relation to the subject, indicating that the claim of connectivity, and not the avoidance of social isolation, mediates the effects of ICT use on subjective well-being. But, likewise both connectivity and avoidance of social isolation mediate the effects of in-person communication on subjective well-being. These results suggest that the use of ICTs and in turn of the Internet and social networks is based on the search for connection with others, while in-person communication facilitates the avoidance of social isolation and the search for social connections and bonding. Both hypotheses can be considered and correct, since in the realm of connection seeking, ICT can increase face-to-face communication, but on the other hand, in the realm of social isolation avoidance, ICT can displace face-to-face communication (Ahn and Shin, 2013).
Another study clarifies that having positive experiences with social networks is not associated with less social isolation, whereas having negative experiences is associated with greater social isolation (Primack et al., 2019).
By way of summary, in short, the reality is that whether the use of the Internet and social networks favors people to become socially isolated depends on the use of the Internet and social networks (in their content, intentionality, etc.) and the individual characteristics of the person (psychological, emotional, social, cultural, etc.).
From my point of view, there is still a lack of literature on the positive effects of the use of social networks and the Internet and how it is possible to decrease social isolation, as opposed to the greater abundance of literature on the negative effects and the increase in social isolation.
Ahn, D. & Shin, DH. (2013). Is the social use of media for seeking connectedness or for avoiding social isolation? Mechanisms underlying media use and subjective well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, (6), 2453-2462. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.022
Al-Kandari, YY & Al-Sejari, MM. (2021). Social isolation, social support and their relationship with smartphone addiction. Information communication & society, 24, (13), 1925-1943. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2020.1749698
Hajek, A. & König, H. (2021). Social Isolation and Loneliness of Older Adults in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Can Use of Online Social Media Sites and Video Chats Assist in Mitigating Social Isolation and Loneliness? Gerontology, 67, (1), 121-124. https://doi.org/10.1159/000512793
Meshi, D. & Ellithorpe, ME. (2021). Problematic social media use and social support received in real-life versus on social media: Associations with depression, anxiety and social isolation. Addictive Behaviors, 119. bit.ly/ 31dwh08
Primack, BA., Karim, SA., Shensa, A., Bowman, N., Caballero, J. & Sidani, JE. (2019). Positive and Negative Experiences on Social Media and Perceived Social Isolation. American Journal of Health Promotion, 33, (6), 859-868. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117118824196