Is Facebook making us lonely? That’s the question posed by The Atlantic‘s new cover story, and if you’re interested in learning more about the nature of loneliness and its prevalance in American life, I recommend you give it a read. But if you’re looking for proof that Facebook and the internet more broadly are making us lonely, be prepared for disappointment.

There’s a lot of good information about the psychology of loneliness in the piece, but while author Stephen Marche isn’t quite so unequivocal in his conclusion, the article safely answers the question posed by its title: No, Facebook isn’t making us lonely.

My suggested title for the piece would be “Loneliness in the Age of Facebook” but that’s just me. I want to quote from the piece and offer some comments, but first, here’s my attempt at a distillation of relevant points, specific to the question of whether Facebook makes us lonely. Again, there’s a ton of rich detail on the topic of loneliness in general. I’m skipping that here but encourage you to read the article.

  • Loneliness is on the rise and has been for at least a decade, despite the adoption of social networking.
  • That “brings us to a more fundamental question: Does the Internet make people lonely, or are lonely people more attracted to the Internet?” To which the experts interviewed pretty much all answer the latter.
  • Face to face interactions predict levels of loneliness; the more of them a person reports relative to online interactions, the less lonely they are likely to be.

Facebook doesn’t make you lonely; lonely people are more attracted to the internet

As I said, the experts interviewed pretty clearly agree that Facebook doesn’t make you lonely as much as attract and reflect loneliness. Here are some quotes from the article:

Moira Burke, until recently a graduate student at the Human-Computer Institute at Carnegie Mellon, used to run a longitudinal study of 1,200 Facebook users. That study, which is ongoing, is one of the first to step outside the realm of self-selected college students and examine the effects of Facebook on a broader population, over time. She concludes that the effect of Facebook depends on what you bring to it. Just as your mother said: you get out only what you put in…

…Still, Burke’s research does not support the assertion that Facebook creates loneliness. The people who experience loneliness on Facebook are lonely away from Facebook, too, she points out; on Facebook, as everywhere else, correlation is not causation. The popular kids are popular, and the lonely skulkers skulk alone.

And here’s the view of John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and “the world’s leading expert on loneliness”:

Yes, he allows, some research has suggested that the greater the number of Facebook friends a person has, the less lonely she is. But he argues that the impression this creates can be misleading. “For the most part,” he says, “people are bringing their old friends, and feelings of loneliness or connectedness, to Facebook.”

Yes, face-to-face interactions are important, but Facebook doesn’t replace them

If Facebook itself doesn’t make us lonely, could it be displacing all-important face-to-face interactions so as to still be responsible for our loneliness? No. Here Marche is again quoting Cacioppo:

“The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are,” he says. “The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” Surely, I suggest to Cacioppo, this means that Facebook and the like inevitably make people lonelier. He disagrees. Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user.

But we can go further than that. There’s been a solid amount of research done on whether online interactions replace offline ones, which Harvard Berkman Center Fellow Zeynep Tufekci summarized in May on her blog:

This line of argument, that our social ties are being hollowed out by digital sociality, is also fairly common. I’d like to start by saying that it is not supported by empirical research. Almost all research I have seen shows that people who are social online tend to be social offline, or at most the effect is neutral, and that most people interact socially online with people with whom they also interact offline—i.e. the relationship between online and offline sociality is mostly one of complement and reinforcement rather than displacement and replacement.

[Emphasis mine.]

That’s consistent with what we saw with the rise of email. And, though now dated, early research found that internet communications displaced TV, which seems positive in terms of loneliness.

Marche concludes that while Facebook isn’t making us lonely, it isn’t saving us from loneliness either, and that’s fair enough. But if you hear someone talking about that Atlantic story on how Facebook makes us lonely, let them know that’s not what it says. And that’s because it isn’t true.