Picture: AFP

Social media shouldn't be treated as a cure for loneliness, and online social contact may in fact mask real social disconnection, the author of new research says.

A report for the Australia Institute says lonely people may use social media to find social support, but they have fewer Facebook friends and count fewer of them as "real friends".

"Given the rapid increase in the use of social media and the government's policy focus on 'social inclusion', there is a risk that social networking sites may be over-promoted, especially to younger people," Australia Institute director and report author David Baker said.

Quality, not quantity, of social connections is critical in determining loneliness, his report says.

People who were not lonely reported greater quality in social networking connections, while more than 50 per cent of lonely people counted fewer than a third of their Facebook friends as real friends, it says.

On a positive note, lonely social media users were proactively using social media to address their isolation.

They reported an increase in contact with family and friends since the advent of the technology.

The research found adults living on their own or as single parents were more likely to experience loneliness, with men living on their own at twice the risk as women.

Surprisingly, couples with children were lonelier than couples without children.

More individualised lifestyles meant connections had become more flexible and temporary, the report said.

The study used data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey as well as an online survey of 1384 people between 2001 and 2009.

The West Australian

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