Courtesy of Cornell University

Janis Whitlock's research suggests that social media might cause loneliness.

November 20, 2018

Cornell Alumna’s Research Finds Social Media Might Make You Lonelier as it Connects People

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Loneliness has been a pervasive issue among college campus — to the point that a class project video about loneliness could even go viral. One of the causes for this phenomena, according to Janis Whitlock Ph.D. ’03, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, is the use of social media.

Recent scientific research by Whitlock shows that social media’s ability to connect people suffering from depression or loneliness with others can actually have a positive impact on mental health, but there are ample examples of its downsides.

In an interview with WRFI radio, a local Ithaca station, Whitlock said that social media can make it easier and faster to find “others who might share similar life experiences or challenges that can make someone feel very alone, like sexual identity, orientation or other aspects of identity that can feel very marginalized otherwise.”

On the other hand, social media users also sometimes limit themselves to virtual relationships and steer away from real-life human interactions, creating a paradox of connectivity.

“On one hand we have very high loneliness and higher rates of mental health challenges than we’ve ever had before in the college population, and on the other hand we have more opportunities for connection than have ever been possible,” she said.

Most of Whitlock’s research is centered around the relationship between self harm and social media, especially developing methods of early detection for mental health issues using social media as most people who “self injure or who are suicidal … do tend to seek informal support or information online,” she said.

People report being satisfied with what they find online in the short term because they are able to find validation from communities who understand what they’re feeling, Whitlock said. Over time, however, the result of going online to seek support or information “is really dependent on who the person is [and] what they’re bringing to the experience,” she said.

For example, an unmoderated chat room which exposes a person with a history of suicide or self-harm to continuous triggers can become extremely triggering and dangerous over time.

Even when these communities become triggering or toxic, teenagers especially will have trouble leaving them because “they had anchored so much of their developmental desire for community in that space,” she said.

Whitlock believes that one of the most damaging aspects of social media is the constant stimulation and need to project an image to the world all the time.

“Having our attention going so many directions and living in such an enormous cauldron of stimulus all the time… is very stressful and I suspect that probably decreases the sense of connection to everybody,” she said.

Her main advice to college students is simple: “Stay off your devices when possible … pay more attention to what’s around.”

This article is part of the Loneliness Project: a multimedia collaboration between WRFI, The Ithaca Voice, The Cornell Daily Sun, and the Ithaca College Park Scholars.