Loneliness and Health:
What’s the (Social Media) Connection?

Amrita Bhowmick

Amrita Bhowmick, MBA, MPH Chief Community Officer

By Amrita Bhowmick, MBA, MPH
Chief Community Officer – Health Union
April 16, 2019

While today’s technology allows us to be more connected than ever, we’re also lonelier and more socially isolated. Results from a 2018 survey of more than 20,000 respondents found that nearly half (46%) of adults in the U.S. reported feeling (sometimes or always) lonely. Interestingly, Generation Z adults, who are presumably the most connected socially, are actually lonelier. And, while age and loneliness are often linked, health and loneliness are even more intertwined. A Kaiser Family Foundation study revealed that people who report feeling lonely or socially isolated are far more likely to have a debilitating disability or chronic disease compared to those who don’t report loneliness (40% vs. 14%).

Loneliness, regardless of who is afflicted, poses a serious threat to overall health, giving the phrase “I’m so lonely I could die” much validity. A meta-analysis assessing the connection between social relationships and mortality showed a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. With all of these factors at play, loneliness and social isolation have now joined the ranks of smoking, sedentary lifestyles, and obesity as serious health hazards. The World Health Organization has also listed social support networks on their determinants of health list.

On the surface, it would appear that finding a social support network is easy. Simply spend time with others, right? But it’s far more complicated. Researchers have found that even when people are surrounded by others, loneliness can persist. One study even found that people living with others were more likely to feel lonely than those living aloneSo, merely being in the presence of others isn’t enough to create a connection. Real social connections form when people engage with others on shared interests and experiences and, more importantly, when people feel understood and accepted.

Social media doesn’t HAVE to make us more lonely

Not surprisingly, a growing number of adults use social media for health purposes. Health Union’s 2016 Online Health Information Survey of more than 2,000 adults with chronic health conditions found that, of those using the internet for health-related purposes, 63% visit social media and other platforms to find others who have their condition and 62% are in search of others who understand what they are experiencing. This may feel counterintuitive as some have posited that Facebook and other social media outlets may actually be detrimental. A recent survey found that more than half of respondents felt that increased technology plays a major role in society’s increased loneliness and isolation.

But social media in and of itself is not a source of loneliness or isolation. What is made available, and how it is used, however, can be. Considering the logistical, financial, emotional and physical obstacles that can often limit the potential for in-person connections among those living with chronic health conditions, it’s not only possible, but important for social media to be leveraged as a positive resource.

Well defined online health communities, that are curated and managed appropriately have been shown to offer the type of support that helps combat issues of isolation by fostering authentic connectionsAt Health Union, social media is used as a means to amplify the online community experience for people living with chronic health conditions. Within our condition-specific online health communities, we see social connections form and flourish via social media on a daily basis.

While it may be clear that those engaging directly would reap the benefits of these connections, these benefits also extend to members who are less actively engaged. More passive members, lovingly referred to as “lurkers,” often browse and read through conversations and content, but are less inclined to join the conversation. Research shows that participation in topic-specific online support groups, in this capacity has had the same effect that it has on more active participants.

Harnessing social media to positively impact health and well-being

Given the known issues with social media, how can people in search of connection navigate the internet and know who, what or where to trust? Social media users should seek out meaningful and authentic connections that can positively influence their overall well-being. But it’s important to proceed with caution and know your limits and trigger points, particularly for those at risk for addiction, depression, and other mental health conditions. Endlessly surfing your news feed probably won’t make you feel better, but using social media as a tool to engage in truly meaningful interactions with others may. If an online community you visit let its members attack and openly criticize others, failing to provide clear and consistently enforced rules, it may not be the one for you. It’s important to note that among the chaos of the internet and social media, there are online communities that can help people feel less alone.

When leveraged responsibly, social media can be an effective tool for individuals living with chronic health conditions. It can also serve as an efficient means for public health practitioners who can use the engagement and learning to develop patient-centric treatments and programs.

Online health communities, like those at Health Union, use social media as a way to amplify social support and create meaningful connections that can have a positive influence on overall well-being, as the research suggests. It’s also important not to conflate the use of “passive interactions” (e.g., scrolling through feeds curated by a social platform), which can negatively impact health, with the deeper, more meaningful engagement that occurs in safe online environments that seek to positively impact health.

Anyone in the healthcare industry, who engages in social media, should consider the true impact that a positive, meaningful engagement can have on the health and well-being of those they serve.  Critical to the success of any engagement in this capacity is to conduct honest, transparent and respectful interactions that show genuine intent. This includes monitoring risky behavior and directing community members to appropriate resources, as needed. It is also essential to constantly re-evaluate social media best practices and trends – and adapt as appropriate – to ensure the positive health impact for participating members is always the priority.

Ultimately, an emphasis on quality versus quantity of interactions will yield a more positive experience and better results for everyone involved.

Special thanks to Sara Hayes, MPH for her help with this article.