We hear a lot about the role of technology in the erosion of human connection and the rise of social isolation. The irony of social media is that it makes our “virtual selves” available for engagement 24/7, but our devotion to the medium can leave some of us in “real life isolation” 24/7, as well. Research continues to indicate that loneliness is an epidemic that is spreading around the globe and the need for IRL, face-to-face connection isn’t lessened by the number of “virtual friends” or followers you have online (Lim, 2018).
Loneliness and Isolation
Loneliness is about the absence of connection, not the absence of people. That’s how we can feel lonely even if we’re in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make us feel especially lonely in two particular instances. First, if you are surrounded by a crowd of people you don’t know and you’re not a fan of mingling and small talk, you can definitely experience extreme loneliness if you’re longing for connection, not just commotion.
Secondly, if you’re hanging out with a group of friends or family and everyone is more focused on their smartphones than they are on face-to-face interaction with each other. Indeed, a huge cause of “alone in the crowd” loneliness is the amount of “screen time immersion” that everyone around us is experiencing.
Sometimes, the loneliest moment at a family celebration or gathering of friends can be when everyone is intently “checking their phones” even though they have gone to the effort of assembling together to celebrate a special event . . . maybe a birthday, an anniversary, or even a birth.
Loneliness can be a function of social isolation. When we don’t have opportunities to engage in social interactions with others, the isolation experienced can leave us feeling lonely. Once upon a time, children who were lonely had to leave their rooms and seek out siblings to tease, parents to annoy, or neighborhood kids for play. Phones weren’t found in everyone’s pockets and computers were not good for much of anything beyond homework writing assignments and basic video games.
In recent years, not only have phones gotten “smarter” than the people who use them, they have also decreased our “social smarts,” too. For the children of the “first gen internet users,” the power they had to engage their parents in any kind of purposeful or playful spontaneous interaction began to shrink as their parents’ screen time increased. Kids were given strict rules about when and where they could travel along the World Wide Web, but often the availability of the home computer was co-opted by parents who were as enamored by its powers to connect to people around the globe as their kids were.
Who’s lonely? Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives – and some of us more so than others. Surprisingly, researchers have revealed that young adults are lonelier than midlife and older adults (Chald & Lawton, 2017; Nicolaisen & Thorsen, 2017). Young people who hit puberty with cell phones in their hands not only missed out on some of the routine social interactions that kids used to experience due to “cell phone distraction,” but they also grew up with parents who were pushing strollers, swings, and Pinterest-inspired snacks with their cell phones in their hands! The babies and toddlers who were mastering V-Tech and Leapfrog electronics early on were likely reflecting their parents’ obsession with technology. If the kids were entertained by pushing buttons, it left more time for caregivers to push buttons on their own devices.
Did the Internet Steal your Parents?
While no one’s arguing to turn back or slow down technology’s forward momentum, perhaps there needs to be more attention paid to the social needs of everyone from youth to older adulthood. Part of the reason, perhaps, that young people today experience loneliness to the extent that they do – even though technology connects them 24/7 – is that they are the first generation to have “lost their parents” or other significant adult figures to technology’s pull. As a counselor, I was surprised at the overwhelming pull of the internet as email and message boards first took hold and I worked with clients dealing with anxiety connected to their Internet usage. A generation and a half ago, new mothers would learn early on that if they stayed too long on the phone, young kids would have time enough to get into trouble – sneaking snacks, watched television shows they weren’t supposed to, teasing their siblings, and so on. Phone calls couldn’t go on for hours, anyway, because the person on the other end of the line would need to get off the phone, too.
However, the online pull of technology is too much for many adults to resist. Chat rooms, discussion forums, shopping sites, online gaming, social networking sites, and even Pinterest can suck in people and steal hours from their lives. If a child needs a parent who happens to be “checking his phone” or she is sitting at the computer, the child might as well be alone even when they’re in the same room with their parent.
The lack of availability of parents and adults is likely a significant cause of the loneliness experienced by young adults and Millennials today. Many didn’t experience the same level of one-on-one time from their parents as earlier generations often did. Young adults learn to rely on technology to keep in touch with their friends round-the-clock rather than learning how to really communicate and converse face-to-face or even on the phone. We’ve dropped a lot of letters from a lot of words in texting, but we’ve also dropped a lot of the comfortable give-and-take of personal connections and hanging out with friends. Perhaps we should be thinking about “parental screen time limits,” not just worrying about the screen time of kids. Our cultural knowledge of how to behave, engage, and connect with friends, family, and co-workers seems to have fallen down a rabbit hole along with expectations for ourselves, not just others.
Can we blame the Internet?
The effect of technology on human interaction is part of the loneliness epidemic, but it can’t be blamed simply on the “distant but immediate” nature of social network platforms. In fact, active engagement with social media isn’t necessarily a predictor of loneliness – unless someone is a heavy user of the medium (Wang, Frison, Eggermont, & Vandenbosch, 2018). In fact, light to moderate active users of Facebook actually experience less loneliness. It is only when a person’s main source of connection is through online technology that loneliness is a significant concern.
We spend our time in our heads when we are reading and responding and posting to social media. We are thinking “lightning quick,” but we are forgetting about the delightfully unpredictable emotional aspects of relationships. It’s kind of like rating photos of potential dates on a limited amount of information. We see a profile pic and decide in an instant if it’s someone we would want to know better. We read a highly stylized bio and make judgments of what a person might be like in “real life.” Yet we forget that relationships are often sparked by unknowable and unquantifiable reasons when we catch the eye of someone we’ve never met before, or share experiences at school, parties, on the train, etc.
Social media may open our world up to a billion new people, but it’s the “IRL” experience that is where friendships and relationships can really develop in ways that might not be predicted by a left or right swipe.