Social Media and Loneliness

In September of last year, psychologist Jean Twenge published a widely-discussed essay in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” In it she wrote, “Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.”

In 2012, The Atlantic also ran Stephen Marche’s essay “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  (I should note in passing that The Atlantic, in my view, has a penchant for misleading titles.) It, too, was widely discussed, including by me here. Marche noted that “Facebook arrived in the middle of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive.”

In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which has now become something of a classic. At least we may say that the title has entered the popular lexicon. In the opening chapter, Putnam writes, “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.”

In 1958, Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition in which she discussed the rise of the “social,” a realm she distinguished from the private and the public spheres. It was marked by anonymity. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, she argued that loneliness and isolation were the seedbeds of totalitarianism.

In 1950, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney published their landmark study of the emerging character type of the American middle class, The Lonely Crowd. It is worth noting that Riesman did not just describe the inner directed person and the outer directed person. Both were preceded, in his account, by the tradition directed person.

In 1913, Willa Cather had one of her characters in O Pioneers! describe his life in the cities this way:

Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

I could go on, but you get the point.

One response to all of this might be to say that we have always been fretting about loneliness, so there must actually be nothing to it. It is merely another instance of the discourse of moral panic.

Putnam himself cites Barry Wellman to this effect in the opening chapter of Bowling Alone:

It is likely that pundits have worried about the impact of social change on communities ever since human beings ventured beyond their caves…. In the [past] two centuries many leading social commentators have been gainfully employed suggesting various ways in which large-scale social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution may have affected the structure and operation of communities…. This ambivalence about the consequences of large-scale changes continued well into the twentieth century. Analysts have kept asking if things have, in fact, fallen apart.

I have a hard time with the implicitly dismissive tone of this kind of commentary. Yes, for the past two centuries social commentators have been reflecting on the effects of large-scale social change on communities; those two centuries witnessed the often rapid dissolution of the communities and social structures that provided the background against which an integrated experience of self and place emerged. It seems perfectly normal for people to be critically reflective and ambivalent when they sense that the only world of they’ve known is coming apart.

A better approach might be to grant that there is something about the structure of modern society that engenders isolation and loneliness. The concern recurs because it is never really resolved. Each generation merely confronts a new iteration of the same underlying dynamic.

Most recently, a survey conducted by Cigna has once more drawn attention to the seemingly perennial problem of loneliness. NPR reported on the findings:

Using one of the best-known tools for measuring loneliness — the UCLA Loneliness Scale — Cigna surveyed 20,000 adults online across the country. The University of California, Los Angeles tool uses a series of statements and a formula to calculate a loneliness score based on responses. Scores on the UCLA scale range from 20 to 80. People scoring 43 and above were considered lonely in the Cigna survey, with a higher score suggesting a greater level of loneliness and social isolation.

More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”

Readers of this blog may be especially interested in the relationship of technology to the condition of chronic loneliness. In the first essay linked above, Jean Twenge argued that there is, in fact, a connection among smart phones, social media, and heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The Cigna survey, on the other hand, did not find a significant correlation between social media use and loneliness although it did confirm a rise in loneliness among the youngest cohort.

As in most cases of this sort, it is impossible to set down, as a rule, how a given technology or set of technologies will impact any given person. There are simply too many variables. The best we can do is identify general trends and tendencies. And even that may not be very useful when it comes down to it. I’ve never understood why we should be relieved when we read about a study which concludes that a majority of people do not experience some negative consequence of technology. What about the often sizable minority that does? Do they not matter?

It seems clear enough that the problem of isolation and loneliness predates the advent of the Internet, social media, and smart phones. It seems clear as well, contrary to the claims of the prophets and ideologues of connection, that they mediate relationships in a manner that does not assuage the root causes of isolation and loneliness. What’s more, it may often be the case that they aggravate the condition.

Consider for a moment the much and rightly maligned business model at work on social media platforms like Facebook. It requires engagement, it needs you to keep coming back and spending time on the platform. In order to do this, the platforms have been designed for addiction (compulsive interaction if you’d rather not employ the language of addiction). Deep and abiding emotional satisfaction is not conducive to the patterns of engagement social media companies want to see from me and you. Loneliness and anxiety work in their favor. They exploit the human desire for companionship and belonging.

I’m going to close by venturing a rather fraught and, as they say, problematic analogy. In relationship to the problem of loneliness, maybe we should think of social media as a painkiller. It’s fairly effective, at least initially, at treating the symptoms. But the underlying condition is never touched. It persists. You find over time that you’re getting diminishing returns, so you turn to it more frequently. Eventually, you might even find that you’re taking the painkiller compulsively and, on the whole, it’s left you feeling worse. Not only has the root condition remained, now you have two problems rather than one.

Technological fixes rarely alleviate and often exasperate social disorders, especially those that involve the most deeply engrained desires of the human heart. We’re better off refusing to treat social media as a remedy for loneliness or even as a form of community. Chastened expectations may be the best way to use a tool without being used by the tool in turn.

(I’m writing all of this as something of a postscript to my most recent installment of The Convivial Society, which focused on the theme of community. You can read it here. You can subscribe here.)

10 thoughts on “Social Media and Loneliness

  1. FYI, I recently purchased the new volume of previously unpublished essays by Hannah Arendt, entitled Thinking Without a Banister…very worthwhile obtaining…her essay on authority from 1956 is worth the price of admission alone…I’m bout 1/8th of the way through it and am interested to see what she says about technology…

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