Social Media and Our Epidemic of Loneliness

Social Media and Our Epidemic of Loneliness April 17, 2012

I don’t usually pull such large quotes from other sources on my blog, but the recent cover article in The Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (Stephen Marche) is worth sharing. It’s about a growing trend of social isolation and loneliness in our culture, despite innumerable social media connections we use to counteract that problem. Marche starts with a sobering illustration:

Yvette Vickers, a former model and B-rate movie star, best known for her role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, would have been 83 last August, but nobody knows exactly how old she was when she died. According to the Los Angeles coroner’s report, she lay dead for the better part of a year before a neighbor and fellow actress, a woman named Susan Savage, noticed cobwebs and yellowing letters in her mailbox, reached through a broken window to unlock the door, and pushed her way through the piles of junk mail and mounds of clothing that barricaded the house. Upstairs, she found Vickers’s body, mummified, near a heater that was still running. Her computer was on too, its glow permeating the empty space.

At the forefront of all this unexpectedly lonely interactivity is Facebook, with 845 million users and $3.7 billion in revenue last year. It’s made more and more of us into living zombies: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.

Many share the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.

In his recent book about the trend toward living alone, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, writes: “Reams of published research show that it’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction, that best predicts loneliness.”

Various studies have shown loneliness rising drastically over a very short period of recent history. A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier.

According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.

Photo taken from the loneliness article on the Atlantic website

As good as the article itself is, the title is misleading, I think. Though I agree with each of the points made about the epidemic levels of loneliness we’re experiencing, I would argue that sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter are byproducts of this isolation, rather than the cause of the loneliness.

When they become problematic is when we rely on them to be a surrogate for real, face-to-face relationship. I consider that akin to sitting on your couch and taking stimulants to lose weight, rather than changing your exercise and diet habits. Sure, you may get some results, but at what greater cost?

So yes, social media can aggravate an existing problem of loneliness rather than remedy it, but it’s not at the source of the problem. I’ve written about this issue before. We can look back as recently as a couple of decades to see the likelihood of what we’re now dealing with coming. First was the proliferation of suburbs. As most households had at least one car of their own, builders could go further out where land was cheaper. The cost, however, was less time with friends and family and more time in the car.

We can also look at the design differences in the suburban homes versus their predecessors. Amy and I live in a 111-year-old Victorian home with a huge wraparound front porch. We spend as much time as possible out in front, and as a result, we meet a lot more of our neighbors than we would otherwise. In the past forty years or so, the front porch has shrunk and has been replaced by an attached garage with an automatic opener. The result: we can come home, drive straight into our ow n house and go in to dinner without ever talking to another living person.

The skyrocketing divorce rate and increasing trends of young adults moving away for school and work broke down what we called the “nuclear family” as the fundamental, insoluble unit of relationship in our culture. Social epicenters like church, local lodges and the like took second chair to drive-throughs, personal televisions and the notorious Walkman portable headphones.

Next steps: email, cell phones, MySpace, and so on. So do we blame the technology for our problems? It’s an easy, convenient condemnation for the drug addict to rail against the needle stuck in his arm, while ignoring the greater issue. The drug/technology came along to fill a recognized market demand. Do those inventions keep us from working harder at making our situation any better for ourselves? Perhaps. Is it the technology’s fault? Give me a break.

The damage is in how we use the tools, in what we expect them to do for, or be to, us. They are simply that: benign, amoral tools. Think of them like a brick, which can be used to build a new hospital, or can also be used as a weapon to bash a man’s skull in. Either way, the will to create or destroy is not the brick’s.

We can use our “bricks” to build pathways of connection or walls of separation. But to stand back after the damage has been done and criticize the walls for not being paths is a stark example of how little we intend to change, despite our dissatisfaction with the present conditions.

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