Social stress & social media may lead to population, fertility declines

AMHERST, Mass. — Estimates predict that the global population will go into a steep decline around the year 2064. Various scientific models predict a “remarkable” drop in the human population, going from 9.7 billion people in that year to roughly 8.8 billion by 2100. Some nations may actually see their current populations cut in half by the end of this century. Now, an environmental health scientist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst is offering up a possible explanation for the predictions — too much social stress and meaningless, overwhelming social interactions taking place across social media and in real life.

Alexander Suvorov, associate professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, suspects that today’s culture of constant, empty, or overwhelming social interactions, often taking place online, are slowly but surely changing both reproductive behavior and reproductive physiology.

“A unique feature of the upcoming population drop is that it is almost exclusively caused by decreased reproduction, rather than factors that increase rates of mortality (wars, epidemics, starvation, severe weather conditions, predators, and catastrophic events),” Suvorov writes in the journal Endocrinology.

Dramatic declines in fertility

Prof. Suvorov’s hypothesis draws a line connecting reproductive trends with population densities. Essentially, the idea is that as populations grow and areas become more densely crowded, the quality and frequency of social interactions change as well.

“Rising population numbers contribute to less meaningful social interactions, social withdrawal and chronic stress, which subsequently suppresses reproduction,” Prof. Suvorov says in a media release. “Changes in reproductive behavior that contribute to the population drop include more young couples choosing to be ‘child-free,’ people having fewer children and couples waiting longer to start families.”

It isn’t all about people just choosing not to have kids either. Over the past 50 years, researchers have recorded a staggering 50 percent reduction in sperm counts. Additionally, Prof. Suvorov is quick to point out that stress can suppress sperm count, ovulation, and sexual activity.

“Numerous wildlife and laboratory studies demonstrated that population peaks are always followed by increased stress and suppressed reproduction,” he explains. “When a high population density is reached, something is happening in the neuroendocrine system that is suppressing reproduction. The same mechanisms happening in wildlife species may be at work in humans as well.”

Will giving up social media save the world?

According to the theory, the predicted drop in population numbers will likely be due to a combination of both reproductive behavior changes and biological changes. Prof. Suvorov recommends scientists conduct more studies on cortisol levels in human blood, an important marker of stress.

“A better understanding of the causal chain involved in reproduction suppression by population density-related factors may help develop interventions to treat infertility and other reproductive conditions,” he writes.

At the end of the day, this is only a hypothesis for now. Still, Prof. Suvorov hopes this theory will lead to more focus on this important topic.

“The goal of this paper is to attract attention to a completely overlooked hypothesis – and this hypothesis is raising more questions than it is giving answers,” Prof. Suvorov concludes. “I hope it will trigger interest of people from very different domains and that after additional studies we will have a much better picture of to what extent population density is connected with social stress and how social stress is connected to reproduction, and what we can do about it.”

In summation, Prof. Suvorov has a message for anyone looking to reduce their social stress: “Back off social media.”