Social isolation occurs when individuals lack real social involvement and quality relationships with others. This state, whether real or perceived by the subject, is associated with several serious health conditions, including early mortality, especially in elderly adults.
There is neurobiological evidence that loneliness and social isolation are linked to neuroendocrine and pro-inflammatory stress responses, including high blood pressure and reduced immune response. Cognitively, isolation impairs executive functioning, negatively affects social cognition (including the ability to trust others), and the processing of negative social stimuli.
The brain's reward system has evolved to enhance the development and maintenance of social connections with others – belonging to a group increases our chances of obtaining valuable resources (e.g. food) as well as improving individual abilities to avoid predators. Thus, individuals who possessed genes that predisposed them to seek out rewarding social interactions and belong to a group, possessed key advantages, survived, and passed on their genes.
In today's world, if an individual feels socially isolated, (s)he can interact with others online, for example, through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. When individuals post content and comments or otherwise interact with other content, they are connecting with other people. The simple fact of receiving a “like” on a social media activates the brain's reward system.
While social media can help establish connections with others, research has proven that more intense use of these networks is linked to greater social isolation in young adults. Passive use of social media (ie, seeing the news without posting anything) and social comparisons lead to symptoms of depression and reduced well-being. This use may also reduce available time or prevent individuals from engaging in offline social interactions, aggravating the situation.
A more or less prolonged absence from social media can have a series of positive results, being a trend that more and more people have adopted (giving up completely or limiting the hours of use).
Perhaps this absence promotes involvement (or the attempt to get involved) with people on a day-to-day basis, with people we even occasionally contact when entering a cafe. Sometimes giving and receiving a smile is all it takes to create a little human-to-human connection and help us feel less alone.
Meshi, D., Cotten, S., & Bender, A. (2019). Problematic Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation in Older Adults: A Cross-Sectional Study. Gerontology, 1-9. doi:10.1159/000502577