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Social networking and loneliness: Research finds link between online life and depression

Social networking sites are a way of life for teens and young adults. But could social media be making them lonely, even depressed?

Claire Bocage opened her Facebook account during her junior year of high school. Last summer, three years after opening it, she closed it, partly because of privacy concerns and partly because of home much time it consumed.

"You could probably spend 18 hours on Facebook (a day) and not even realize it," she said.

Some students admit they're on social networking sites during class.

"Yeah -- I would say if you stand in the back of a classroom, you generally see Facebook open more than notes," said Amanda Uhme, a student.

Some even prefer social networking sites to old-fashion socializing.

"It definitely gives you more of an incentive to stay in rather than go out and actually converse with people," said Craig Brown, a student.

But what happens when the online friend count goes up and the number of real-life encounters goes down? A recent study found the answer might be linked to loneliness and depression.

Of the 2,000 undergrads surveyed, one-third said they spend more than 6 hours online every day. And one in seven said social networking sites increase their feelings of isolation.

"I think it is interesting how technologies like these, which are meant to bring people closer together, tend to in some ways isolate them, because you have this substitute for actual in-person interaction," said Phillip Wiseman, a George Washington University student.

George Washington University Psychiatry professor Dr. Amir Afkhami says one of the first questions he asks students he suspects are depressed is how they socialize. Chances are, he says, most of it is online.

"Individuals recede to this virtual world of having these kind of virtual friendships and connections," Dr. Afkhami. "But they don't receive the same sort of supportive environment that you do when you have a real connection to a real living, breathing individual."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the study found when students reach out for help online they're more likely to get a virtual response from a friend than a personal visit.

"I think a lot of people who don't know and who aren't involved with mental health organizations don't know the warning signs that may come from online, and really only take it seriously when it happens in real life," Uhme said.

It's not clear whether social networking sites lead to loneliness, or whether people who are already lonely or depressed are drawn to the sites. Experts say when said sites get in the way of real life, instead of making our real lives better, that's when it's time to consider signing off.