Which social media platforms foster meaningful connections between people?
In the past month, we’ve introduced the Neely Social Media Index and reported our findings for social media experiences that users perceive as bad for the world, and experiences that negatively affect users personally. Yet, we aim to provide a balanced approach and provide insight not just into the costs but also into some of the many benefits of social media. Therefore, in today’s post, we shift our focus to one of the positive experiences that users may have when using social media and online communication services — feeling connected
Earlier this year, the US Surgeon General declared an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, stating that the current situation is a public health crisis. The shift away from in-person education, socializing, and working that the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated has introduced an exceptional challenge to people’s fundamental need to affiliate and connect with each other.
Yet, many social media companies claim that their missions are to help people connect despite geographic and/or health concerns. For example, Meta’s mission statement declares that they aim to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” and Discord’s mission statement is to “give people the power to create space to find belonging in their lives.” Given that these platforms do make it possible to connect with others when they may not be able to be in the same physical location, these platforms might help people experience meaningful connections even under such dire circumstances as witnessed during a global pandemic. Today’s report reviews US adults’ tendencies to experience meaningful connections across social media platforms and social communication services.
We asked people whether they had experienced a meaningful connection with others on the services that they reported using. The majority of U.S. adults did not report experiencing a meaningful connection across any of the services we asked about that they used, provoking an interesting question about whether these services are really doing what they’ve ostensibly been designed to do (i.e., to connect people to each other).
Unsurprisingly, the services for which the highest percentage of users reported having a meaningful connection with others were the direct messaging services – Text messaging (47.5%), Facetime (45.4%), and WhatsApp (42.9%).
Among other services, Facebook (33.1%), Discord (32.9%), and Snapchat (23.5%) stand out as platforms where people report connecting with others in meaningful ways at higher rates than email (22%). On the other end of the distribution, we see Pinterest (4.1%) and YouTube (8.7%). This makes intuitive sense because Pinterest is a service where people design pin boards to save pictures and products to return to later, and YouTube is a service for creating and viewing videos; the focus of these applications is more about creating and enjoying content and less about directly communicating with and connecting to others.
Twitter stands out given that it is a social media platform where people spend a lot of time engaging in back-and-forth conversations with each other, yet only 9.8% of adult users in the U.S. report having experienced a meaningful connection with others on the service. Similarly, Reddit, Nextdoor, TikTok are all services in which direct messaging and back-and-forth communication is possible if not required, yet all of these platforms showed low levels of meaningful connection (ranging from 10.1% on Reddit to 15.4% on TikTok).
This analysis is informative in giving a general rank ordering of the social media and communication services where users report the highest and lowest likelihoods of experiencing meaningful connections. Yet, it is a simple top-level summary that may vary across different types of users. Unlike our previous blog posts on questions related to negative experiences, we did not ask respondents about the topics and impacts of their experiences on them. We did, however, allow them to describe their meaningful connections on these platforms.
In these open-ended descriptions, there is some variability in the ways that they experience meaningful connections on these platforms. Overall, nearly all responses made mention of connecting with people who they could not see in-person very easily because of geographic distance. For example, one respondent stated that “I Facetime my family who is far away or doesn't live with me and I get to see nephews or nieces on a daily basis. I am really grateful for facetime because it allows us to connect with someone as if we're talking in person and it's just better than texting or talking to another end of the phone without seeing any facial expressions.”
While people did mention using text messaging to bridge geographic distance, they were more likely to mention that text messaging was useful in sharing pictures, making plans, and getting answers to quick questions. One respondent wrote that “I think we spend too much time texting and not enough time face-to-face with each other. However, text messaging is an easy form of communication to get questions answered quickly.” The descriptions respondents provided for WhatsApp were similar, but essentially extended text messaging across borders (perhaps due to the increased cost of international calls / texts). One respondent stated it allowed them to be “able to text my friends in Africa,” another wrote, “I communicate with friends who are going oversees [sic] on WhatsApp. This keeps our connection close while they travel.”
Meaningful connections on discord, which began as a popular communication app for people who played video games, not surprisingly, included many mentions of games that people were playing together. Yet, many respondents mentioned meaningful connections having nothing to do with gaming. For example, one respondent wrote that “My sorority uses Discord for weekly meetings. Through Discord I am able to meet new members.” Another stated that they participate in channels where members “share mental health struggles and participating in group check ins and celebrating each other's achievements.”
Facebook was the only “traditional” social media platform in the top tier of platforms where people reported a high rate of meaningful connections with others. In reviewing these descriptions, though, it appears that most respondents were actually conflating Facebook with another Meta app -- Messenger. One respondent stated “I block my Newsfeed and only use Messenger. The Newsfeed is terrible.” For respondents who wrote about the actual Facebook app, they emphasized seeing pictures of family and friends who are far away.
In the subsequent sections, we look at whether self-reported meaningful connections on these platforms vary by gender, politics, age, education, and race/ethnicity.
We recognize that gender is a multifaceted, complex identity. Yet, less than 1% of our sample reported a gender other than Man or Woman. Therefore, our analysis is limited to self-identified men and women, as we have an insufficient number of respondents with a gender different from those two categories to generate a stable, reliable point estimate.
If we look at the rate of experiencing meaningful connections collapsing across the platforms we included in our survey, we see that women report experiencing meaningful connections more frequently than men do.
In the bar chart below, we see the same general rank-ordering of the social platforms, but some differences between men and women on the different platforms. Numerically speaking, women reported experiencing meaningful connections at a rate higher than men across all platforms except for Instagram, LinkedIn, and online gaming services. Statistically, women’s rate of meaningful connections was significantly higher than men’s when using text messaging, Facetime, and Facebook. While women’s rates of these meaningful connections are numerically higher on email, YouTube, and TikTok, these are not statistically significant differences, which may mean that there is no difference or that we lack the statistical power to detect this difference beyond chance.
To examine political differences, we adopted a standard procedure from political science whereby we create groups of people based on whether they claim membership in a certain party or they claim to be independent even though they typically vote for one party. This is important to do because many independents are not actually independents, but rather people who have a party preference but opt not to or are ineligible to register for a party (for more detail on this interesting phenomenon, see this paper). We’ve also opted to exclude people who identified as members of other parties because they comprised just 4% of the sample and point estimates for that subgroup would likely be misleading.
If we look at the rate of experiencing meaningful connections collapsing across the platforms we included in our survey, we see that Democrats and Republicans alike tend to report experiencing meaningful connections on most social media platforms at a higher rate than do Independents.
When we drill down into differences between platforms, this tendency for partisans to report meaningful connections at a higher rate is significantly higher when using Facebook, Facetime, Instagram, Snapchat, and text messaging. The only platform where Independents report a significantly higher rate of experiencing meaningful connections than do Democrats and Republicans is LinkedIn.
On Twitter, Republicans do report meaningful connections at a rate more than double what Democrats and Independents do. The current survey was fielded in Spring 2023, so all data were collected after Elon Musk had taken control of the company and implemented numerous changes. It is possible that Republicans' experiences on Twitter have changed with the new platform leadership and community standards, but we cannot say whether that is the case with just the first wave of data. As more waves of data come in, we will monitor for changing experiences.
There were no differences in the rates of meaningful connections between political parties on email, TikTok, or YouTube.
If we look at the rate of experiencing meaningful connections collapsing across the platforms we included in our survey, we see that older people report experiencing meaningful connections more frequently than younger people do.
Not surprisingly, this tendency for older people to report the highest rates of meaningful connections appears across most of the platforms and services we included in our survey. The clearest exceptions to this pattern can be seen for online gaming, Reddit, Pinterest, and TikTok, where the user bases skew younger and may offer connections that appeal more to younger people.
If we look at the rate of experiencing meaningful connections collapsing across the platforms we included in our survey, we see that more educated people report experiencing meaningful connections more frequently than younger people do.
This pattern persists when looking at these differences across the different platforms included in our survey. People with higher education levels generally displayed the highest rates of experiencing meaningful connections on social media. On some platforms, like email, people who had obtained at least a college degree reported meaningful connections at a rate nearly 3x that of people with a high school (or lower) level of education. In fact, there were no instances where people with an education level of high school or less reported meaningful connections on any platform at rate statistically significantly greater than people with at least some college education.
To examine potential race and ethnicity differences, we asked people to report their races and ethnicities, and combined responses to those two questions to form the recommended race/ethnicity composite variable. 5% of our sample selected “other” or multiple races, which is too small for that heterogeneous group to yield a reliable point estimate across platforms, and are excluded from the platform-specific analyses.
If we look at the rate of experiencing meaningful connections collapsing across the platforms we included in our survey, we see that White, Non-Hispanic people report experiencing meaningful connections more frequently than people with other racial and ethnic identities do.
White, non-Hispanic people reported the highest rates of meaningful connections with others on text messaging, WhatsApp, Facetime, and Snapchat. Non-Hispanic White and Black people reported meaningful connections on Facebook at a rate significantly higher than did non-Hispanic Asian and Hispanic people. Hispanic people reported a rate of meaningful connections using online gaming services significantly more than people of other racial and ethnic identities.
Most US adults do not report experiencing meaningful connections on social media apps over the previous 28 days. The apps where adults report the highest rates of meaningful connections are those which involve direct communication with one or more people. Text messaging, Facetime, and WhatsApp boasted the top rates, with Facebook and Discord falling in the second highest tier. The number for Facebook may be overstated because many of the users’ open-ended responses referrer to a different Meta app -- Messenger -- which functionally is more similar to the other direct communication apps at the top of this list. On the other extreme are Pinterest and some of the more traditional social media apps -- YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Nextdoor, and TikTok. Together, these data show that direct forms of communication seem to be more likely to foster meaningful connections with others than the more indirect, broadcast-oriented social media platforms.
In one of our next posts, we will continue exploring how people’s experiences vary across social media platforms, but will pivot to questions around political polarization and freedom of speech.
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To see the detailed sample sizes and margins of error for the demographic subgroups discussed in the above analyses, you may find them on this Google spreadsheet.