Are social media making us lonely?

For all the connectivity offered by social media, we “have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.” Do you agree?

It’s the great paradox of our age, said Stephen Marche in The Atlantic. Thanks to texting, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, Americans now live in “a web of connection” in which we can reach everyone we know in just a fraction of a second. Yet for all this connectivity, we “have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.” A 2010 study by the AARP found that 35 percent of adults over the age of 45 were chronically lonely, up from 20 percent a decade earlier. Another major study reported that 20 percent of Americans—some 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.

Facebook, of course, isn’t the sole cause of the growing isolation so many people feel, but there’s little doubt that it is amplifying it. Social media lure us into “increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy.” So instead of engaging our friends in meaningful, face-to-face conversation, we now spend hours a day clicking “like” on their photos and exchanging single-sentence status updates. “In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”

It’s true that people report feeling lonelier, said Jeff Bercovici in But this is a phenomenon that precedes Facebook. Between 1985 and 2004, the year Mark Zuckerberg launched his site, surveys found that the average American’s number of close confidants shrank from three to two; in that pre-Facebook era, one in four Americans had zero close friends.

There are many reasons for this increasing isolation, such as the fact that we work ever-longer hours, commute longer distances, and have less time to socialize. “And technology undoubtedly has a lot to do with it.” Just don’t blame Facebook alone. In fact, research shows that the site can actually strengthen our friendship networks, said Luke Allnutt in Radio Free Europe online. A recent Pew Research Center study found that Facebook members had more close confidants than non-Facebook users. That’s possibly because Facebook allows us to better nurture and manage existing relationships. When my son was born last year, for example, I uploaded a photo of him onto Facebook; within minutes, I received dozens of “likes” and congratulatory comments from family members, friends, and people I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Those “likes” weren’t throwaway sentiments, but rather “the equivalent of smiles,” pats on the back, or wineglasses raised in my boy’s honor. “Facebook didn’t make me feel lonely; quite the opposite in fact.”

I really wish Facebook was making us lonely, said Alexandra Petri in, but it’s actually doing something far worse. Every day, it forces you to face the fact that your friends’ lives are going better than yours. Ugh: Mimi has just posted photos of her engagement ring. Carl won a Pulitzer. “Camilla just got into graduate school (twitch) and Ann was elected to the Senate (twitch) and Marcel won the Goncourt prize (twitch).” After gritting your teeth and clicking “like” on each of these infuriating announcements, you’re left wanting to retreat “to a secluded area and scream wordlessly for hours.”

Please stop blaming Mark Zuckerberg for your problems, said John McQuaid in Hating something as popular as Facebook “has a certain resonance,” but research shows that the site is just a tool that can amplify people’s feeling of isolation or be used to alleviate it. It all depends on what you put into it. The blame game “assumes a kind of infantilization effect, that Facebook (or any social tool) can determine the conditions of your life for good or ill.”

Open your eyes, said Sherry Turkle in The New York Times. Everywhere you look, you’ll see the proof that social media are turning us into solitary creatures. Whether at a college library, a coffee shop, or even a beach, people now spend much of their time looking down, while “furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens.” Being “alone together” has an addictive appeal, because real human relationships are messy, demanding, and frustrating. By compressing other people to digital connections, we can keep each other “carefully at bay. Not too close, not too far, just right.”

Facebook and Twitter also give us the power to “present the self we want to be,” carefully tailoring our status updates and retouching photos of ourselves. But beware: “Sips” of online connection provide only “the illusion of companionship.” May I suggest that we put down our devices, “look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.”

- As seen in The Week
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