Does social media make people less happy?

I’ve written a bunch over the last few years attacking the idea that social media is isolating, causes loneliness, etc. But Technology Review has a piece up on some new and seemingly credible research on the relationship between social media use and reported happiness:

But there is growing evidence that the impact of online social networks is not all good or even benign. A number of studies have begun found evidence that online networks can have significant detrimental effects. This question is hotly debated, often with conflicting results and usually using limited varieties of subjects, such as undergraduate students…

…They found for example that face-to-face interactions and the trust people place in one another are strongly correlated with well-being in a positive way. In other words, if you tend to trust people and have lots of face-to-face interactions, you will probably assess your well-being more highly.

But of course interactions on online social networks are not face-to-face and this may impact the trust you have in people online. It is this loss of trust that can then affect subjective well-being rather than the online interaction itself.

Perhaps, like so many other things, the truth is that it depends. Use the internet to meet and stay in touch with a wide circle of people with whom you sometimes interact in person, and it probably makes you better off. Use it to monitor a wide circle of weak ties or strangers with whom you seldom have much interaction, maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve been critical of even that line of thinking, because from the studies I’ve seen previously it’s seemed that online networking has been, on net, positive. So it should be noted that this research isn’t a confirmation of what we already knew. It runs contrary to it. Previous research has tended to find that online activity has been highly social, and hasn’t caused social isolation. (I’m not aware of anything specifically looking at the impact of social media on trust before this.)

No doubt we’ll continue to get a better picture of the interaction between social media and happiness over time. But for now, this research offers a notion of caution for the optimists.