A new study published in CyberPsychology & Behavior suggests that college students who were primed to imagine lonely feelings didn’t find any relief from their loneliness when chatting with strangers online.
Subjects in the study who had high trait loneliness found some relief from talking to strangers face-to-face, but their loneliness increased after texting with strangers online. People with low trait loneliness experienced no significant difference between the two conditions (talking with others face to face or online).
Trait loneliness refers to when a person fails to establish satisfactory personal relationships with others for two or more consecutive years, reflecting problems in relating to other people. Trait loneliness (also known as chronic loneliness) appears to be related to a set of personality factors (or traits), such as introversion, shyness, and low self-esteem according to the researcher.
When considered in context, it’s probably not surprising that chatting with people you don’t know online isn’t likely to help much with your feelings of loneliness if you’re a chronically lonely person. People who are chronically lonely rely on activities done in solitude (such as watching TV or sleeping) to combat their loneliness. Chatting online with people one doesn’t know may just be reinforcing one’s feelings of isolation and solitude.
The study didn’t look at people talking to friends online or face-to-face, so we have no idea whether these findings are generalizable to all online chatting, but I would suspect not. Communicating with friends or family tends to have a completely different dynamic than communicating with people you don’t know. It also only looked at real-time chats, not forums or email communications.
I would also note that artificially creating a feeling of loneliness in a laboratory setting (as was done in this experiment) is quite different than a person’s everyday life, where such feelings may or may not be present when chatting online (or face-to-face). This type of loneliness arousal procedure is a common problem with experimental designs of this nature. It doesn’t adequately replicate how people experience loneliness in their normal environment.
So while some may hold this study up as evidence that chatting online actually increases loneliness, it does so only in a small sub-group of people who are more chronically lonely in their everyday life. And it does so only with strangers, from this data; we don’t know if the results will hold steady when looked at with friends or family.
Hu, M. (2009). Will Online Chat Help Alleviate Mood Loneliness? CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(2), 1-5.