Every few months an article comes out like this one by Stephen Marche of The Atlantic which asks “Is Facebook making us Lonely?” We know that Facebook is helping us connect with more and more people but fear its encouraging us to connect in more and more superficial ways. Could it be that we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness despite all our connections? If so, it would follow that today’s teenagers, who grew up with access to social media would be the loneliest generation ever. The article dances around answering its own question in the affirmative and yet there is little definitive research that sheds light on what Facebook is doing to us socially. If you were to poll friends and acquaintances of various ages, you would certainly get a host of differing responses as to whether our culture’s fascination with Facebook is healthy.
I find the title of The Atlantic’s recent feature frustrating, not because I don’t think we should be critical of social media. Last week I discussed teens and their tendency to use social media inappropriately in social settings–so obviously I think we should be very critical of how we use social media. In fact, I think most teens today are probably not critical enough of their own relationship to social media–but if our criticism of social media is going to amount to much, we need to be asking the right questions.
“Is Facebook making us Lonely?” No, of course not. Facebook isn’t making us do or be anything. In fact, I wrote about the tendency among Christians to make unfair assumptions about social media almost a year ago–”Social Media, Facebook Friends, and Why They Matter“:
Social media isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It remains unclear whether the Facebook generation suffers greater loneliness than any previous generation. However, there is one thing we can draw from the ICMPA’s study: there is a generation that cares deeply about Facebook because it’s their means of social communication. You don’t have to be invested in Facebook to the extent that the average college student is. However, Facebook hosts 500 million active users with children, birthdays, thoughts, hopes, and dreams that they will inevitably share with their friends. If you are remotely interested in reaching people for Christ all those things should matter.
A better question to ask about Facebook, therefore is: are many people using Facebook to further isolate themselves from meaningful social interaction? I think the answer to that question is yes and consequently a good follow-up would be to ask how we might tap into Facebook in socially productive and meaningful ways. I can understand why these questions aren’t being explored as fervently as the question Stephen Marche is asking because they are both harder to answer and make for less interesting headlines.
Moira Burke, a graduate student at the Human-Computer Institute at Carnegie Mellon, is cited in Marche’s article and points out the obvious answer to the question about Facebook’s relation to our loneliness:
She concludes that the effect of Facebook depends on what you bring to it. Just as your mother said: you get out only what you put in. If you use Facebook to communicate directly with other individuals—by using the “like” button, commenting on friends’ posts, and so on—it can increase your social capital. Personalized messages, or what Burke calls “composed communication,” are more satisfying than “one-click communication”—the lazy click of a like. “People who received composed communication became less lonely, while people who received one-click communication experienced no change in loneliness,” Burke tells me.
So if you are one of the many people who hates Facebook, here is something worth considering: perhaps you are using it poorly. If you spend multiple hours a day on Facebook and the majority of that time is spent observing the lives of others without interacting with them, then you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself loathing social media and not feeling particularly connected to your “friends” therein. The easiest thing to do about our problems in life is to blame some outside source. Food is making us fat, cars are making us lazy, and social media is making us lonely. Doing so gets us off the hook but it doesn’t solve any of our problems.
Developing and maintaining meaningful relationships takes time and effort whether the medium of communication is social media or not. Social media isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so it’s time we stopped being awkwardly suspicious of Facebook and started considering how we are using it if we ever want it to be a positive force in our lives.