The School of Positive Psychology

Is Social Media Making Us Lonely?

In the digital age, social media platforms have revolutionised the way we connect, share, and interact with one another. While these platforms promise unparalleled connectivity, there’s a growing body of research and anecdotal evidence suggesting that, paradoxically, they may contribute to a pervasive sense of loneliness. This article explores the complex relationship between social media and loneliness, delving into what loneliness means, its manifestations, and how the principles of Positive Psychology can offer effective strategies to mitigate its effects.

Table of Contents

What is Loneliness?

It may seem like a common experience that happens when we are alone, but to define loneliness and its causes is not as simple.

Loneliness is a complex emotional and psychological experience characterised by a perceived isolation and a deep sense of emptiness or social disconnection. This means that a person can feel alone even when surrounded by people, or living in close proximity with others, because it is based on our own evaluation of our situation.

Thus, loneliness can affect anyone regardless of their social situation. This subjective interpretation can be influenced by factors such as personality traits, life experiences, and psychological makeup (Cacciopo & Patrick, 2008). For instance, introverts and extroverts may have different needs and preferences for social interaction, affecting their perception of loneliness. 

While loneliness cannot be attributed to a singular cause, it is widely acknowledged among researchers that it happens when a person’s desired social connections do not match their reality (Perlman & Peplau, 1981; Tiwari, 2013). Recognising the multifaceted nature of loneliness sets the stage for identifying its manifestations in our daily lives.

Signs and Symptoms of Loneliness

Loneliness affects emotional, mental, and eventually also physical wellbeing. Signs of it can vary widely but often include feelings of isolation, sadness, and a perceived lack of meaningful connections. Recognising these signs can be the first step toward seeking help or making changes, or supporting someone to do so. 

Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent Feelings of Sadness: A continuous sense of melancholy or unhappiness.
  • Feelings of Worthlessness or Inadequacy: Doubting one’s value or feeling insufficient compared to others.
  • Increased Sensitivity: Overreacting to criticism or feeling easily hurt by others’ actions or words.
  • Decreased Social Contact: Withdrawing from friends, family, and social activities one previously enjoyed.
  • Increased Reliance on Social Media: Using social media excessively as a substitute for real-life interactions.
  • Change in Sleep Patterns: Experiencing insomnia or oversleeping, often as a way to pass time or escape feelings of loneliness.

Causes of Loneliness

From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are social creatures who have historically relied on group cohesion for survival. Being part of a group has provided advantages such as shared resources, protection from predators, and cooperative breeding and child-rearing. Loneliness signals social disconnection, which historically could have meant decreased chances of survival. Therefore, the pain of loneliness can be seen as an evolutionary mechanism that motivates individuals to seek social connections and rejoin the group to increase their chances of survival (Cacioppo et. al., 2014).

But why do some people feel more lonely than others? Some psychological concepts can help us make sense of the causes of loneliness.

Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and Life Stress Theory (Holmes & Rahe, 1967) suggests that major life changes can disrupt one’s social identity and challenge an individual’s ability to cope, leading to a reassessment of social roles, a potential loss of social support and identity, and feelings of isolation and loneliness as the social support system may be perceived as inadequate.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999) explains how transitions such as retirement can alter social goals and availability of social partners, leading to a perception of social isolation or loneliness if the desired social interactions are not achieved.

Thus, key life changes and circumstances may tend to incite feelings of loneliness. Other situations may include:

  • Experiencing the loss of a loved one
  • Navigating the aftermath of a breakup
  • Career change
  • Going to a new school
  • Facing challenges related to mental health
  • New parenthood
  • Relocating to a different environment

Certain individuals may also be more susceptible to feelings of loneliness, including those facing:

  • Lack of social support from friends or family
  • Challenges restricting opportunities for social engagement
  • Social isolation resulting from physical or financial limitations
  • Discrimination associated with disability, health conditions, racial identity, gender, or sexual orientation
  • Effects of sexual or physical abuse, which may hinder the formation of close personal relationships

Furthermore, when various societal expectations and norms are imposed in the media or in conversation, this can create unrealistic benchmarks for personal achievement and social integration (Festinger, 1954). When individuals compare their own lives to these idealised representations, they may perceive their social relationships as inadequate, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

This begins to suggest why the rise of social media in recent years has also emerged as a contributor to feelings of loneliness, since social media platforms, with their curated displays of connectivity, often present an idealised version of reality. The discrepancy between online portrayals and offline realities can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, as users may feel that their own lives don’t measure up to the seemingly perfect lives displayed by others. 

Social Media's Impact on Loneliness

Exploring social media’s impact on loneliness reveals a complex relationship, with evidence suggesting that increased usage of platforms like Facebook is associated with heightened feelings of isolation (Song, et. al., 2014; Huang, 2017).

Here are several scenarios that illustrate the potential of social media usage to contribute to loneliness:


Social media platforms are rife with opportunities for comparison. Seeing others post about their achievements, social gatherings, or seemingly perfect lifestyles can make individuals feel inadequate or left out, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Surface-Level Interactions

While social media enables constant connectivity, the interactions it fosters are often superficial. The lack of deep, meaningful conversations can leave individuals feeling disconnected despite being “connected” online.

Quantity Over Quality

The emphasis on the number of friends or followers can detract from the importance of nurturing high-quality relationships. This focus on quantity over quality can result in a network of weak ties, contributing to a sense of loneliness.

Reduced Face-to-Face Interaction

Excessive use of social media can take away from time spent engaging in face-to-face interactions, which are crucial for building strong, supportive relationships. The absence of physical presence and non-verbal cues can exacerbate feelings of isolation.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Social media often highlights the most exciting aspects of people’s lives, leading others to feel they are missing out on experiences and connections, which can intensify feelings of loneliness.

Online Echo Chambers

Social media algorithms can create echo chambers where individuals are only exposed to viewpoints similar to their own. This can limit the diversity of interactions and make it harder to feel a genuine connection to a broader community.

Privacy and Trust Issues

Concerns over privacy and the authenticity of online personas can hinder the development of trust in online relationships. The fear that online interactions lack genuineness can contribute to a sense of loneliness.

Dangers of Loneliness

Loneliness is more than a temporary state of mind; it can significantly affect our wellbeing. Prolonged feelings of loneliness are associated with various physical and psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and decreased immune function, to name a few. Loneliness can also predispose individuals to serious physical illnesses by negatively affecting the immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems.

Moreover, it can trigger a detrimental cycle where loneliness leads to health issues, which in turn can diminish self-esteem, promote negative thinking, and encourage social withdrawal. This cycle exacerbates loneliness, as people might conceal their struggles, thereby intensifying their sense of isolation and self-stigma. 

In Singapore, a recent poll highlighted that a significant proportion of young adults aged 21 to 34, experience heightened levels of loneliness compared to older demographics. This age group was also found to prefer online communication to in-person interactions, suggesting that social media usage may be perpetuating a habit of digital isolation. Despite the convenience and global connectivity offered by social media platforms, this shift towards virtual communication could be contributing to a sense of disconnection and isolation among young adults. The reliance on digital interaction, while providing a veneer of social engagement, may lack the depth and emotional richness of face-to-face encounters, potentially leading to an increase in feelings of loneliness within this age group.

Alleviating Loneliness with Positive Psychology

How can Positive Psychology help us to counter the effects of loneliness, especially when social media easily lures us into a false sense of connectedness? 

Building on our exploration of strategies to mitigate loneliness, Positive Psychology offers insightful research into the domains of relationships, meaning, and positive emotions, equipping us with a robust set of tools to navigate the challenges of loneliness. Research from this field suggests a strong relationship between an individual’s levels of wellbeing and feelings of loneliness, where higher levels of wellbeing are generally associated with lower levels of loneliness. 

We delve into 7 practical interventions validated by research to enhance fulfilment and satisfaction in our lives and interpersonal connections. These interventions are designed not just to counter loneliness but to elevate our overall sense of connectedness and community.

Build Multiple Source of Meaning

Meaning is a core component of wellbeing, and you can build multiple sources of meaning to foster a stronger sense of purpose and connection. With this, you can enhance your sense of belonging and social support, reducing feelings of isolation and increasing overall wellbeing.

Explore what gives you meaning by reflecting on activities, relationships, and goals that align with your core values and provide a sense of purpose. What are activities that resonate with your beliefs and principles? Which relationships in your life make you feel nourished and supported? What are your passions and strengths? Take one small step towards engaging in an activity, joining a community, or setting a goal that reflects these areas, thereby expanding your sources of meaning and connection.

Practise Positive Reframing

Originally developed as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) technique, cognitive restructuring or positive reframing is about training ourselves to identify negative, automatic thoughts—especially those fueled by loneliness and pessimism—and replace them with more balanced and positive thoughts. 

Practise becoming mindful of your thoughts. Keeping a thought diary may be helpful, writing any thoughts that occur, along with the situation that triggered them. Once you’ve identified a negative thought, challenge its validity. Ask yourself questions like “Is there evidence that supports this thought?” or “Are there alternative explanations?”

Consider the evidence for and against the negative thought. Try to rephrase the thought in a more positive or realistic way. This doesn’t mean blindly looking at everything through rose-coloured glasses but finding a more balanced perspective. For example, instead of thinking, “I’ll never find the connections I want,” you might reframe it to, “I’m having trouble with this now, but with some effort and patience, I can improve.”

Develop Positive Communication

Building strong, supportive relationships is all about being able to communicate authentically and supportively. Through positive communication, individuals can express gratitude, joy, interest, and love, which are foundational for closer social bonds.

Practise active listening by maintaining steady eye-contact, avoid planning your response while they are speaking, and put mobile devices away and on silent. Reflect back what you’ve heard to show you understand, which can help deepen your connection with the speaker. 

Use Active Constructive Responding – when someone shares good news with you, respond by showing genuine excitement, interest, and curiosity. For example, a statement like “That’s amazing! Tell me more about how it happened” signals enthusiasm and interest in the details.

Foster High Quality Connections

High-quality connections are interactions that leave you feeling engaged, open, motivated, and revitalised, even from brief exchanges that make both parties feel valued and understood. These connections enhance psychological and physical health, engagement, and learning, creating an energised, supportive, and productive environment in both professional and personal settings.

To foster high-quality connections, engage respectfully, practise task enabling, and trust. Respectful engagement involves being fully present, actively listening, and offering affirmations to signal value for others’ ideas and feelings. Task enabling supports others’ performance through coaching, facilitating, being accommodating, and nurturing, addressing both practical and emotional needs to empower and support personal and professional development. Trust, built through sharing, self-disclosure, inclusive language, delegating tasks, and seeking feedback, is crucial for forming strong, high-quality connections.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Keeping a gratitude journal or sharing what you’re grateful for with others can shift focus from what’s lacking to what’s abundant in your life. Gratitude can also increase your perception of social support by making you pay more attention to the support you receive from others, highlighting the presence of caring relationships in your life.

Once a day, write down 3 to 5 things you are grateful for at that moment. Make this process as simple as possible so that it is easy to perform regularly. Notice how this shifts your perspective from looking at what is lacking to what you already have.

Strengths Exploration

Identifying and utilising your strengths can boost self-esteem and encourage engagement in activities that foster a sense of belonging and purpose. Understanding our strengths can also help us find activities that help us recharge and nurture our general sense of wellbeing. Perhaps you have the strength of ‘Appreciation of Beauty’ – this could mean that going out for a walk in nature can energise you and make you feel more connected to the wider world. 

Think about times in your life when you felt particularly proud of your achievements or when you were fully engaged and enjoying what you were doing. Identifying the skills and qualities that contributed to those successes can provide clues to your strengths. You can also explore more of your strengths through the free VIA Character strengths report. 

Dedicate a week to observing and noting how your identified strengths play out in your everyday life. Each day, choose one strength to focus on and find ways to incorporate it into your activities, interactions, or reflections. This could involve setting a specific goal for the day that aligns with your strength, such as taking a new route on your walk if you appreciate beauty, or volunteering your time if kindness is one of your strengths. At the end of the day, reflect on how using this strength made you feel and how it impacted your interactions or activities. This practice will not only deepen your understanding of your strengths but also enhance your sense of engagement and fulfilment in daily life.


Starting to volunteer can be a meaningful way to combat loneliness, connect with others, and contribute positively to your community. Studies indicate that acts of compassion and offering help to others have significant positive effects. Feeling down or isolated often leads us to see our world through a narrower lens, but assisting others can swiftly shift our outlook and invigorate our spirits, which explains the association between acts of kindness and overall wellbeing.

Begin by considering what you are passionate about or interested in, thinking about the strengths you have and the kind of settings where they can be harnessed. Evaluate how much time you can realistically commit to volunteering. Ensure that the volunteering environment is safe and that you feel comfortable with the organisation’s staff and other volunteers. A supportive environment will enhance your ability to connect with others and enjoy your volunteer work.


Recognising the signs of loneliness in oneself or others is critical for addressing it effectively. Remember that loneliness is a common human experience, and seeking support whether through social connections, community resources, or professional help, is a positive and necessary step toward improving one’s mental health and overall wellbeing.

While social media has the potential to connect us in unprecedented ways, it’s crucial to be mindful of its impact on our mental health. Loneliness, a complex and deeply personal experience, requires a multifaceted approach to address effectively. 

By applying principles of Positive Psychology, we can forge more meaningful connections, appreciate the richness of our lives, and mitigate the negative effects of loneliness. In doing so, we not only enhance our own wellbeing but also contribute to a more connected, compassionate world.


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