Photo by Mikoto.raw Photographer on Pexels

Loneliness and Screens: Causes and Consequences

Jeffrey A. Hall and Andy J. Merolla—

Loneliness is complex. You keenly feel its touch when missing someone close to you, but it can also linger dully in the background for weeks, months, or years, increasing risk of neurodegenerative disease. Loneliness is self-perpetuating; lonely people are often reluctant to act in ways that would help resolve it. Distinguishing the signs of loneliness from its causes is equally complex. There are some who see social media as a primary driver of loneliness, particularly among the youth. Yet, we rarely ask the question, why do people turn to social media to begin with? What are they seeking there? To understand high rates of loneliness, we shouldn’t confuse cause with consequence. Once understood in the context of everyday sociality, excessive screentime isn’t the easy villain it is made out to be. Rather, it is often a coping mechanism for loneliness that has already taken hold.

Loneliness is the recognition of what is missing; it is a hunger for momentary social connection and closer relationships. The social conditions giving rise to loneliness, and a lack thereof, are often slow to change. Over decades of a person’s life, loneliness and companionship are more stable than not. Although there are economic, mental health, and genetic conditions that contribute to persistent loneliness, nearly all the changeable predictors of loneliness are social. Change a person’s social life—both for the better or for the worse—and loneliness changes in turn.

Since the 1960s, Americans have more leisure time but are spending more of it alone. Social leisure time has risen for married adults, while falling for unmarried adults living by themselves. Families are shrinking in size and marriage is becoming less likely and is starting later in life. Although the number of friends appears to be stable, time with friends has declined. Of course, one can be alone and not be lonely, and we all need downtime and solitude to “recharge our batteries.” Yet loneliness rises as isolation grows, especially isolation that is unwanted.

Big and small screens alike rush in to fill the void of social connection. In our popular imagination, the portrait of loneliness is an isolated teen hunched over a smartphone. If we pull back the lens a bit further, we might see the screen is not only a phone and the person isn’t always young. Time diary studies are quite clear: older adults, particularly retirees, spend the most time in front of screens, but it is a TV not a smartphone. Adults spend five times longer watching TV, including streaming video content, than they do on social media. Even young adults spend less time on social media than watching streaming and broadcast content.

Social media can be, well, social. From group chats and DMs to sharing pictures, videos, emoji, or memes, people are communicating. Our research suggests that online social interactions are most valuable when people need them the most. In an experiment of 303 adults, people were asked to recall a particularly disconnected or connected time in their lives. When feeling the furthest away emotionally or geographically from people they loved, social media, texting particularly, helped people feel less lonely. One of Jeff’s colleagues who is active in a sub-Reddit community of people with multiple sclerosis told Jeff that he has found comfort and understanding there in a way he can’t find offline. Many people from minoritized groups find connection and community through social media. 

Studies of social media abstinence reveal the most common good thing people lose when they quit is feeling in touch with others. For many people—not just teens—social media is a way to stay in contact with those unavailable face-to-face. Whether a college student far from home, a couple in a long-distance relationship, or someone working away from family, mediated messages from home are a lifeline.

Notice, however, that social media is most valuable when there is a responsive person on the other side. When people have a lot of time and few supportive relationships, their media consumption can become excessive and markedly less social. For both social media and TV, excessive screentime is where problems arise, as it crowds out opportunities for rewarding face-to-face social interaction—the very interaction that maintains existing relationships and builds new ones. Both within a day and over a lifetime, there is a negligible difference in well-being between people who spend some time versus no time on screens. An 11-year longitudinal study confirmed that a year with more TV is a year with less life satisfaction and happiness, but that harm was mostly carried by the heaviest TV watchers. The most problematic pattern of social media use has been tied to adolescents lacking loving and supportive relationships at home. People turn to TV and social media to cope with loneliness, but neither offers solace for solitude in the absence of responsive communication partners.

Think about why you turn to your smartphone. When do you feel sucked in? Momentary feelings of disconnection or lack of better alternatives often motivates us to turn to a screen. This is not an inherent problem for many of us, but for some, specifically those of us experiencing chronic loneliness, the screen fix only exacerbates feelings of disconnection. If we confuse cause with consequence, we fail to recognize that screens are a reasonable, but not always effective, response to loneliness.

As we explore in our upcoming book, The Social Biome: How Everyday Communication Connects and Shape Us, the research evidence is unequivocal that time spent socializing, particularly in person, is more effective at mitigating loneliness than any other activity. Seeing media as the cause for people’s loneliness, however, blames them for their isolation. Telling people to stop watching TV or get off their phones side-steps the broader problem of why they are doing so to begin with. Worse, this stigmatizes social media use, even though we know that it can be a bridge for those who need connection the most. It might even spark the creation of vital new relationships.

If loneliness is a virus, excessive screentime is like running a temperature. We must address the underlying causes of loneliness, which include access to mental health treatment, discrimination, financial precarity and numerous other societal and structural barriers to forming relationships and spending time with others. Let’s not blame the fever for the virus, else we risk vastly oversimplifying the complex causes of loneliness while also overlooking the very real ways in which social media can, under the right conditions, be part of a balanced diet of social connection. 

Get notified when The Social Biome becomes available.

Andy J. Merolla is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA. Jeffrey A. Hall is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and the director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence, KS. Merolla and Hall are the authors of the forthcoming book The Social Biome: How Everyday Communication Connects and Shape Us.

Recent Posts

All Blogs