stepsJust about everyone has an opinion about Facebook. A favorite theme is loneliness. There are those who believe that Americans (among others) are becoming lonelier and that our habits of connecting by Facebook instead of in person are hastening our slide into isolation. From that perspective, people constantly posting status updates are revealing their own loneliness.

Others instead believe that Facebook allows people to stay connected when face-to-face gatherings are impractical or impossible. Those who use Facebook may in fact maintain more connections with other people. Their Facebook posts and other social media activity are added onto their in-person contacts, rather than substituting for them.

In Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg argued that, contrary to stereotypes, people living alone are unlikely to be isolated, and one of the reasons is the availability of social media: “ The young urban professionals we interviewed report that they struggle more with avoiding the distraction of always available social activity, from evenings with friends to online chatter, than with being disconnected.”

Readers of this blog know where I stand on just about every empirical question – I want to know what the results of systematic research indicate. A just published study reports an experimental approach (the gold standard of research methodology) to the question of whether posting more Facebook status updates increases or decreases loneliness.

In the study, the status updates of 86 college students were monitored for two months. They were told how many updates they had posted. (On the average, it was 2.2 updates a week.) Then about half of the students (randomly assigned – that’s what makes it an experiment and not just a correlational study) were instructed to post more status updates in the coming week than they usually do. The other half of the students were given no such instructions.

For each of the 7 days of the study, students answered questions about their mood and about how connected they feel to their friends. They also completed a loneliness questionnaire both before and after the 7 days.

The students who were instructed to post more updates did indeed do so – they posted close to 9 more updates than they had in the 2 months before the study started. The students given no special instructions did not post any more updates than they had before.

The key finding was that the students who posted more status updates felt less lonely at the end of the study than they had before. Those students felt more connected to their friends and more in touch with them than the students in the control condition, and that greater sense of connection seemed to be the driving force behind their lesser sense of loneliness.

The status updates were typically noticed by the students’ friends: 79% of all of the status updates were either “liked” or commented on or both. But getting a response from friends was not essential to the process whereby posting more status updates results in lesser feelings of loneliness. Students felt less lonely even if their status updates went unacknowledged (at least on Facebook; the authors did not track whether the students may have received responses through other channels such as email or in person). The authors speculated that because status updates are ways of communicating with others, the mere act of expressing yourself that way can alleviate loneliness.

There are limitations to the research, of course. For one thing, the study lasted just a week. The authors believe that posting status updates is akin to what others have called “social snacking.” When we do things like looking at pictures and reading emails, we remind ourselves of our ties with other people, and that decreases our loneliness: “Similar to a snack temporarily reducing hunger until the next meal, social snacking may help tolerate the lack of ‘real’ social interaction for a certain amount of time.”

Reference: Deters, F. G., & Mehl, M. R. (2013). Does posting Facebook status updates increase or decrease loneliness? An online social networking experiment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 579-586.

Student using a laptop image available from Shutterstock.