Why the Lonely Stand to Lose the Most from Facebook

Lonely people can become lonelier when they get hooked on Facebook.

Posted Jun 25, 2019

As much as people like to claim that Facebook is on its way out, there seems to be no end in sight for its popularity. One of the reasons people continue to use this platform as a tool to connect is that they can remain in touch with a wider range of people than they could interact with on a daily basis.

In the past, the only way you knew about those you grew up with was to commit to writing letters or making phone calls. You might even have had to rely on going out to social gathering places in the hopes of staying up to date on what the people in your past are up to, and even this wouldn’t work if you or they no longer lived in the same community. For some people, Facebook serves as a way to retain vicarious social ties. These might be the socially anxious types who prefer to avoid face-to-face contact. It would seem that Facebook would provide a natural antidote to their fear of being out there in the public eye. For lonely people, similarly, Facebook should be a route to greater social engagement. However, at what cost does Facebook come for the feeling of connection?

Think about the last time you were feeling slightly lonely but everyone you knew was too busy to get together. Did you dig into your Facebook feed to satisfy your need to connect? Imagine if you felt that lonely all the time. Would you feel better or worse if you swapped your virtual world with the world inhabited by your friends and family? Think also about whether the thought of being with actual people causes you to become worried about being judged for wearing the wrong outfit or saying the wrong thing. Maybe it’s just easier to stay home. In this case, Facebook might help you feel better in the moment but keep you from exploring your real-world contacts in the long run. On the other hand, perhaps you’re the type who loves to be around people, whether in person or online. Perhaps you use Facebook as a tool but not as a crutch.

According to University of Hong Kong’s Cecilia Cheng and colleagues (2019), the potential risks and benefits of Social Networking Sites (SNS) need to be understood by distinguishing between people who use Facebook as a social enhancer and those who seek to make up for their perceived lack of social resources. The authors begin by asking the question of whether the “socially rich” (people who already have extensive networks) or the “socially poor” (who do not) get richer through Facebook use. In the rich-get-richer scenario, or the social enhancement model, those socially rich in their offline connections can use SNS as “a networking channel to leverage their already large reservoir of social resources.” They’re the ones who are out with their friends, posting their adventures all over their favorite SNS’s on almost a nightly basis. According to the poor-get-richer model, or social compensation model, “individuals who are more disadvantaged in offline social capital accrual tend to benefit more” because their SNS’s give them “an alternate networking channel to expand their scant pool of such resources” (p. 735). However, this compensation can come at a cost.

The model explored by Cheng and her fellow researchers is based on “uses and gratification” theory, which assumes that people satisfy their fundamental needs through mass media. From this standpoint, SNS users are trying to satisfy their needs for social contact, helping them to communicate better and have higher levels of well-being. In other words, people use SNS’s to feel better. However, what happens when they are harmed rather than helped? Under what circumstances do SNS’s pose a danger to people’s happiness?

In further distinguishing between the socially rich and poor, the Hong Kong researchers note that people can be driven by a true preference for being with others (or not), represented by the trait of extraversion. However, this preference may not be matched by their ability to succeed in acquiring and keeping extensive relationships. Problems in interpersonal relations due to social anxiety or loneliness also become part of the equation. Thus, people with high levels of extraversion should both use SNS extensively (social enhancement) and also be the ones to get richer as a result (rich getting richer). Both of these are positive outcomes. For people who have problems in face-to-face interpersonal relations, those attempts to compensate in the online world can create problems. According to displacement theory, “such an attempt may be futile” (p. 738). They spend more and more time on SNS, trying to compensate for their feelings of social awkwardness, but the more they do, the less time they have to “maintain intimate relations and improve social skills in real-life interactions” (p. 738).

Age is an important factor to add to the equation, because SNS’s may serve different functions for people whose offline social networks are affected by "children leaving the home, relocation, and retirement." These older “digital migrants” who came to SNS later in life than “digital natives” may use these tools for different reasons. Social compensation may apply to their SNS use more than for younger adults, but they may also gain “a sense of social empowerment and community by participating in online social interactions” (p. 738) with, for example, new social contacts and distant family members who have moved away.

To make it clear, then, the main question the Hong Kong team of researchers set out to investigate was whether the use of SNS’s would improve or worsen your ability to feel supported by your social network. The authors made the distinction between people who are naturally gregarious (the highly extraverted), people who enrich their social lives with SNS, and people who stay away from actual interactions (the socially anxious and lonely), seeking to compensate via their online activity. The rich can only get richer, the authors believe, but the poor are at risk of a downward spiral in which their extensive SNS use lead to further loss of their social capital.

Cheng et al. investigated this question through a meta-analysis in which they evaluated significance levels across a range of 178 studies from seven world regions, amounting to a sample size of over 108,000 individuals. Their measures of social capital included the personality trait of extraversion and the two measures of problems in interpersonal relations of social anxiety and loneliness. The outcome measures were perceived intensity of SNS use, time spent on SNS’s, social network size, and perceptions of social support. 

After evaluating the results of this extensive set of studies, the authors concluded that personality does make a difference in the way that Facebook affects a user's sense of social connection. Their work identified three groups of SNS users: (1) the extraverted, who seek social enhancement; (2) those with social anxiety, who use SNS to compensate for their low social resources; and (3) those who are lonely, who also seek social compensation. SNS use was detrimental only for that third group, the lonely, whose extensive SNS involvement was found, across studies, to lead them to feel less rather than more supported. For those high in social anxiety, however, the authors note that use of SNS had no overall effect though, for them,  “expanding one’s social networks merely by making new online friends may not necessarily help gain more social capital” (p. 748).

Age also showed up as a significant factor in evaluating the reasons for SNS use. Adolescents spend time on SNS primarily for nonsocial purposes (entertainment, passing the time). You can relate to this finding if you get your major news stories from Facebook or Twitter. Adults actively seek to gratify their social needs through their SNS connections.

To sum up, as you scroll through your own SNS feed, consider what you are gaining or losing from your online community. Do you feel better after spending time on Facebook or other social media platforms? Are you balancing your online world with your offline world? If you feel your network starting to close in on itself, it may be time to take a break. Having relationships with others in your social network can be an important source of fulfillment, but only if you are able to find that ideal balance.


Cheng, C., Wang, H., Sigerson, L., & Chau, C. (2019). Do the socially rich get richer? A nuanced perspective on social network site use and online social capital accrual. Psychological Bulletin, 145(7), 734–764. doi:10.1037/bul0000198.supp (Supplemental)