How often do you feel lonely? If you’d say that you experience loneliness sometimes or even always, you are not alone. According to a new survey of 20,000 Americans sponsored by The Cigna Health Insurance Company, loneliness is at epidemic proportions.1 And if you suffer from mental illness, odds are that feeling lonely and disconnected from others is a factor in your depression and/or anxiety. But how can you feel disconnected from others when you are constantly able to be connected through social media? The answer is complicated.

In the recent survey sponsored by The Cigna Health Insurance Company, 46% of respondents reported sometimes or always feeling alone. How big of a role does social media play on these high loneliness figures? That depends on how you interact with the Internet. Studies suggest that using Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and similar social media apps to keep in touch with friends and forge off-line connections can add vitality and communion to your life. But if you are spending hours every day using social media mainly as a substitute for real connection, your feelings of loneliness and inadequacy will likely worsen.

We’ve all been in a public place, waiting for a friend to arrive or simply dining, traveling, or sitting alone, and opened an app to avoid “awkward” eye contact with those around us. And it is common for social anxiety sufferers to open social media apps to temporarily feel some connection to others. But when they unplug, the feeling of connection dissipates. Furthermore, frequently viewing curated snapshots of other people’s lives might leave social media users feeling as if everyone else has a better life, is smarter, funnier, more interesting, has more friends, etc.. The impulse to believe this illogical notion can be even stronger for social media users with low self-esteem. The online world might begin to feel like a minefield of potential triggers: from the comparison trap outlined above to obsessively checking if someone has “liked” their post or wished them a happy birthday.

Demographically it seems young adults with heavy use of social media platforms–two hours a day have twice the change of experiencing social anxiety, according to a 2017 study. The study’s researchers also found that participants who are online most frequently–defined as 50 or more visits a week–have three times the odds of perceived social isolation as those who went online less than nine times a week. And it isn’t just young adults affected by the social media-loneliness conundrum. It can be adults, stuck in their routines and feeling unable to discover new ways to find and foster friendships offline.

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My patient *Janette, age 35, was painfully shy, even as a child. Initially, she saw social media as a way to experience an involvement in people’s lives since she found it difficult to make friends in face-to-face situations. Over the course of several months, her social media use spiraled to over 60 hours a week. “At first, I felt this was really helping me feel less lonely, but after a while the more time I spent scrolling the more miserable and rejected I felt. A part of me knew Facebook friends weren’t really rejecting me when they posted photos of parties they hadn’t invited me too because we’d never met or knew one another only casually. But I just felt worse and worse.”

Rather than helping her feel like she had a community, social media accentuated her lonely state. It re-triggered old hurts, such as when, growing up, her mother had sometimes remarked, “What did I do to be stuck with such a boring child?”

My advice to Janette in one of our therapy sessions: “The solution to healing the awful way you were taught to feel about yourself is not to keep casting about for others’ approval, but to look inward, work on exorcising your mother’s voice and at building ego—your sense of self-worth.”

I gave her an assignment: to disconnect. Or to at least set a strict boundary, such as going on social media for just one hour a day. Understandably, Janette found it very difficult to break her social media habit. It had become, in many ways, more of an addiction than a habit. So we added a complementary assignment: to become more engaged in the real world.

She gathered her courage and volunteered for a local environmental group which allowed her to meet like-minded people. It can be easy to conflate being “social” with going to parties and get-togethers, hanging out at bars or music shows, but those activities aren’t the only way to make friends. Doing things that you actually enjoy and look forward to not only eases anxiety surrounding social events but allows you to meet like-minded people. Having things in common makes it easier to find things to chat about, especially when you’re shy. So Janette nurtured her other outside interests: hiking and a Sunday movie-going group. It took a couple months until Janette started getting her social media addiction under control.

Still weaning oneself of an entrenched habit is difficult, especially when said ‘habit’ is in our pocket, purse or on our wrists (Et tu Apple Watch?). Janette started small: signing off for 24 hours, then when she logged back on giving herself specific goals–for instance, checking the updates of 3 to 4 people she really knew, such as a relative or fellow volunteer, versus the dozens and dozens she’d usually scroll. She wasn’t ready to deactivate her Facebook profile, but she did leave the many private groups she had joined. She also deleted apps and downloaded software to temporarily block websites she couldn’t resist on her own.

In therapy, Janette no longer runs from facing the inner demons, but works with me to look them in the eye and thus eventually de-fang them of their power. Janette needs the blocking app less and less often, especially since she had a brainstorm on how to meet people with similar interests. Last month she started an offline support group for people who spend too much time on the Internet.

*Editor’s note: The name and identifying details have been changed.

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Last Updated: Nov 15, 2019