Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?

Globally, about 4.7 billion people—more than half the world’s population—use social media. And experts expect the number of social media users to continue rising for years. Apps such as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter have changed the way we interact with each other. But there’s a lot of disagreement about what the overall effect is. Is all that time spent in front of computers and on our phones healthy? Two professors who study the social impact of the internet face off about whether social media is isolating us and making us interact less with the real world.

Social media allows us to be always connected, but in the process, we lose our appetite for spontaneous conversation. Online, you’re less vulnerable. You create a profile that lets you appear as you wish to be, and it’s easier to compose your thoughts and leave the thread if things become uncomfortable. After a while, you’re willing to sacrifice real conversation for mere connection.

From the beginning of social media, early users established the kinds of selves that would be on display. If you were a woman, on social media you would be thinner and more attractive than anything you could aspire to in physical reality. Your conversation could be thought out in advance. People came to love their avatars and their posts. But everything you do online subtly depletes your confidence in real life. Comparing your avatar with your physical self makes you feel worse about yourself. The net result: Social media makes you feel socially vulnerable and gives you the feeling that only screen conversations are safe.

Research indicates that social media usage makes real connections harder.

In 2009, the Stanford media psychologist Clifford Nass began to explore the relationship between online life and the emotional lives of teenage girls. The girls who considered themselves “highly connected” online were not as empathetic as those who spent less time online. The “highly connected” girls also felt less accepted by peers and didn’t have the same positive emotions from interacting with friends as those who used social media less frequently. In sum, online life was associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection. A decade later, this study had a dramatic bookend: In Finland, a three-year study of nearly 2,000 teens linked the degree of internet use to depression, loneliness, school failure, and inability to connect with others.

On social media, we compare ourselves to the curated self-presentations of others and always come up short. Social media makes experiencing real-world emotional life very hard. And that means it’s ultimately making us less social.



Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

If being social means engaging with more people for more time, then social media is obviously making us more social, not less.

With social media, we can interact with people in globally public spaces, and that means we are social with many more people than ever before. Sometimes that will be on a discussion thread, and sometimes it will be by answering a question a stranger has posed or posting a video that might lift up the mood of someone you’ve never met.

But aren’t these relationships shallow? Maybe, but it would be more accurate to use terms from sociology: Strong ties are the rich, long-term bonds you have with family and your closest friends. Weak ties are more like the students in your classes with whom you don’t spend a lot of time. But don’t underestimate the importance of weak ties! Just imagine what it would be like if the only people you felt any connection with were the handful of the most important people in your life. Your social life would be terribly diminished.

Social media vastly increases the number of people we can know, help, and learn from.

People need weak ties, and social media has made it absurdly easy to form them. Those ties can give you a sense of being part of a loosely connected network of people with whom you have shared a moment or an interest in common. Having lots of weak ties can lead to the discovery of new interests. And they can evolve into deep friendships.

Furthermore, having lots of weak ties that include lots of different sorts of people lets us recognize that we all share a world that matters to each of us but matters differently to each of us.

Despite its many benefits, social media sometimes enables and can even encourage us to behave badly with one another. We all need to be working on changing social media to prevent this, as well as becoming more aware of the effects of our words online.

Social media has undoubtedly increased the different ways in which we can be social and the number of people we can know, help, and learn from. And that is the essence of being social.



Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard Univ.


PERCENTAGE of American adults who use at least one social media app.

SOURCE: Pew Research Center, 2021


PERCENTAGE of 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. who use TikTok, more than any other social media app.

SOURCE: Pew Research Center

159.75 million

NUMBER of Instagram users in the U.S. as of January 2022.

SOURCE: Statista

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