Friday, 4 November 2016

Is a picture worth more than 1000 words?: Social Media and Loneliness

If you are anything like me, then at any given moment you are not 
more than 3 feet away from your phone, your laptop or some device giving you access to the digital world. Perhaps a few seconds before clicking on this article, you were scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, or maybe 
you  were on the Instagram app selecting the best filter for your next photo upload. A few keystrokes will give you the chance to share any thought or experience with your classmates, your best friends, or the world. But with so many 
opportunities for interaction at our fingertips, how do you choose which program to open? Although social media cannot replicate face-to-face interaction, they may differ in the quality of experience you get out of them. So, which platform should you choose? 
          For those of you who have yet to step foot into the world of social media, you are in a slowly dwindling minority. Canada has one of the highest rates of social media use in the world, with 4 out of 5 citizens engaged in at least one digital communication platform. The rates are particularly high for young adults who have developed in tandem with the growth of communication technology. New social media platforms seem to be popping up at every turn and we are surrounded by avenues of connection. 

            Despite being the most highly connected generation in history, it seems we are also the loneliest. Nationwide, almost half of adults indicate that they feeling depressed due to being alone, and rates of reported loneliness only seem to be increasing. In terms of psychological health, loneliness is a substantial risk as it is linked with mental illness, poor physical health and increased risk of death.  

         So if social media pales in comparison to face-to-face interaction, then one might question why we bother signing up for a profile in the first place. Research suggests that the key may be the type of communication platform we choose to interact with. A study conducted by Pittman and Reich indicates that in terms of emotional outcome, not all social media is created equal.  For the sake of simplicity, social media can be differentiated between image-based or text-based platforms. 

       In their study, young adults were asked to asked to respond to scales of loneliness, happiness and satisfaction with life. Following this, they were asked to indicate which social media sites they interacted with, and the degree of their usage. This involved two picture sharing sites -- Instagram and snapchat, as well as two text based sites -- Twitter and Yik Yak. The researchers found that use of picture based sites is associated with lower levels of loneliness, and higher level of happiness and satisfaction with life. This relationship was not found with use of text-sharing sites. 

      So what is the difference? Why should it matter which platform we choose? To answer this question Pittman and Reich  suggest the discrepancy could be tied to the type of interaction offered by the site. Each differs in the level of connectivity and “realness” it involves. Sharing picture allow the user a feeling of “social presence”. That is, the interaction is more realistic. Our brains trust our visual modalities such as images and video more than text because we inherently believe that pictures cannot lie. 

Additionally, the experience offered by pictures and videos is both intimate and immediate, something which text cannot offer. When you send your friend a ten-second snapchat of your meal, or post an image of your latest camping trip on Instagram you allow the viewers a glimpse into your experience as you yourself experienced it. When you send your friend a snapchat of a goofy face, the resulting experience is quite similar to 'goofing off' together in the same room.

  So what does this suggest for the lonely hearts deciding which app to open on their phone?  Evidence suggests that they may fare best if they select an image-based platform, based on the it's ability to mimic authentic and in-person interactions. If a face-to-face meeting is not possible, image-based media may be a close second.  However, if you’re not ready to give up twitter, don’t fear, text-based sites seem to offer their own benefits. While image-based platforms seem to be most strongly related to lower levels of loneliness, users indicated that text-sharing sites were valuable for keeping up with the news or alleviating boredom.  That being said, social media is no replacement for the real deal. While a scroll through Instagram or a quick snapchat conversation might be linked with a merrier mood, there may be a limit to it's capabilities. Social media may have the opposite effect if all interactions become media based and an individual limits face-to-face interactions. If you are interested in online activity, go ahead and take advantage of social media to reach out to friends, but I suggest you consider what you hope to get in return. When it comes to our psychological well-being, there may be something to be said for strategic use of online communication. 

- Colleen Murray 

McKinnon, M. (2016, August 02). 2016 Canadian Social Media Use and Online Brand Interaction Data. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from

Pittman, M., & Reich, B. (2016). Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand words. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 155-167. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.084

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