Platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr and even old-school Facebook have become the social life-blood of the so-called 'digitally native' generation - with new channels constantly springing up. For millions, communication by social media puts them instantly in touch with a network of people they call friends online.
But a couple of recent studies have highlighted the potentially isolating effects of spending too much time online, and catapulted the 'growing epidemic' of loneliness in our society - and among younger people in particular - back into the headlines.
First came widespread news coverage of a report from charities Relate and Relationships Scotland which found that almost half (45%) of adults felt lonely at least some of the time and almost a fifth (18%) felt lonely often or all of the time; and that youngsters in their late teens and early 20s are now three times more likely than people of retirement age to spend most of their time alone and isolated.
You're Not Alone - The Quality of the UK's Social Relationships, based on the findings of an online YouGov poll of 5000 adults across the UK, suggested that younger people are more likely to report feeling lonely than older people. Almost two-thirds (65%) of 16- to 24-year-olds said they felt lonely at least some of the time, compared to 32% of those aged 65 or over; and almost a third (32%) of the younger respondents felt lonely often or all the time - nearly three times the number of over-65s (11%) who said the same.*
The report's authors pointed to the Facebook generation's reliance on social media as a key contributing factor to their feelings of loneliness - one in ten teenagers said they have zero friends real life.
In the headlines a few days later was research by the University of Pittsburgh showing rocketing levels of loneliness among young adults who spent large amounts of time on social media. The study of 1787 19-32 year olds found that the more time they spend online the more likely they are to feel cut off from the rest of society. More than two hours of social media use a day doubled the chances of a person experiencing social isolation compared to those spending half an hour or less. And frequent visitors to social media platforms - 58 visits or more per week - had more than three times the odds of feeling socially isolated versus those who visited fewer than nine times per week.
The rise of (Anti-)Social Media
The University of Pittsburgh academics did not draw firm conclusions as to why maxing out on social media leads to loneliness: do people go online in an attempt to feel less lonely? Does seeing curated photos of friends enjoying 'perfect lives' or attending an event to which you have not been invited encourage feelings of envy, exclusion and FOMO (fear of missing out)? Or does spending a lot of time on social media leave less time for building real-life relationships?
The latter hypothesis was also mentioned by Relate counsellor Barbara Bloomfield: "The relationship skills we build as young people are crucial to how we form our relationships later in life. But the way those early relationships are conducted has changed immeasurably in the last ten years, leaving a gulf between this generation and the previous ones. Social media is a great way for keeping in touch with friends but it shouldn't be used as a replacement for face-to-face contact. Our friendships are built largely on shared experiences and it is important that at least some of these are taking place away from the screen."
We know that feelings of loneliness and isolation transcends all ages and backgrounds - offline and online- and there are all sorts of theories as to the underlying causes (as the Pittsburgh academics highlight). But one thing that these studies do provide, is irrefutable evidence of the fact that when it comes to tackling these feelings there is no substitute for genuine, real-world interactions. And indeed, replacing offline relationships with online 'friends' can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing.
'It's good to talk': a step back (or forward) in time?
This is no surprise to us at The Silver Line. Every day we hear about the transformative powers of human contact and real conversation, both from the 10,000 older people who call our helpline every week and through the thousands more Silver Line Friendship calls that take place. They tell us that communication by email, text and IM has its place but nothing can replace actually speaking to another person and hearing a human voice.
Many of the older people who call us have seen their social networks dwindle away through retirement or immobility, have lost partners for various reasons including divorce, and now find themselves going for days without speaking to anyone else. The front door eventually becomes a barrier to social interaction, rather than a gateway...and yet a single phone call can break down that wall. Some have called us 'a lifeline'.
Even when older people have families and friends they don't want to bother busy ''children'' who are already juggling demanding jobs and caring for their own youngsters, or friends who are preoccupied. So when the text comes ''R U OK?'' mum or dad just text back a ''Yes'' rather than "I'd love a chat".
There are well-established links between social isolation and mental (as well as physical) health, which our helpline team increasingly encounters among the older generation - especially during the loneliest night time hours; and it's no surprise that the US researchers say this is presenting in younger social media addicts too.
This week sees the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness launch their spotlight on older people, which runs through to April and which we are very proud to be a part of. Under the slogan 'Start a Conversation', its aim is to not only raise public awareness of loneliness among older people, but also act as a 'call to action' to mobilise individuals and communities help tackle it - whether through talking to a neighbour, visiting an old friend, or just making time for people they meet...watch this space.
In the meantime, as a school tells parents to turn off their phones at the gates, and Nokia starts selling an old-style phone-only mobile once again, maybe it's time we all remembered the truth of the old slogan: "It's good to talk". Even the digital natives among us are fundamentally social - as opposed to social media - beings.
Sophie Andrews is Chief Executive of The Silver Line
*We would respectfully query this finding: the figures did not breakdown between younger retirees - often cited as the happiest demographic - and over-80s, who are more often isolated following bereavement. Further, older people are generally less represented online (and so their views reflected in the YouGov poll); and the 'stiff upper lip' generation are more reluctant to admit feeling lonely - we often hear from the over 10,000 weekly callers to The Silver Line, that they haven't told their friends or family, and don't like to 'be a burden'.
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