The Atlantic has an excellent article about the rise of human loneliness despite the rise of hyperactive social media. The fundamental question it asks is: "Does the Internet make people lonely, or are lonely people more attracted to the Internet?"
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. Americans are more solitary than ever before. In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households contained only one person. By 2010, nearly 27 percent of households had just one person. . . .
Still, loneliness is slippery, a difficult state to define or diagnose. The best tool yet developed for measuring the condition is the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a series of 20 questions that all begin with this formulation: “How often do you feel …?” As in: “How often do you feel that you are ‘in tune’ with the people around you?” And: “How often do you feel that you lack companionship?” Measuring the condition in these terms, 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.
Though we are more connected than ever to hundreds and even thousands of online friends whom we interact with and whose lives we follow--not just on Facebook, but on Twitter, and on other social media sites (like the comments section of this site)--we are increasingly distancing ourselves from those people most immediately in our lives, who are right there in the flesh:
The question has intensified in the Facebook era. A recent study out of Australia (where close to half the population is active on Facebook), titled “Who Uses Facebook?,” found a complex and sometimes confounding relationship between loneliness and social networking. Facebook users had slightly lower levels of “social loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with friends—but “significantly higher levels of family loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with family. It may be that Facebook encourages more contact with people outside of our household, at the expense of our family relationships—or it may be that people who have unhappy family relationships in the first place seek companionship through other means, including Facebook.
The researchers also found that lonely people are inclined to spend more time on Facebook: “One of the most noteworthy findings,” they wrote, “was the tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals.” And they found that neurotics are more likely to prefer to use the wall, while extroverts tend to use chat features in addition to the wall.
So Facebook affects social and antisocial people differently. For social people, it isolates them from their immediate surroundings-- their family, their friends, and even their pets. Users become so engrossed in the status updates and online lives of others that their preferred world becomes what lies behind the neon glare of their laptop screen, rather than what awaits at home and at the dinner table. Anecdotally, this strikes me as true for both happy and unhappy families. I don't think that Facebook users are trying to escape unhappy families by signing on, I just think that most young people, when given the choice, would rather hang out with their friends than with their parents. When you consider that most Facebook users are in high school and college, you realize that what Facebook does is extend the adolescent world of school into all aspects of youth life. You may be sitting at the dinner table with mom and dad, but your iPhone is on your lap, and your Facebook app is buzzing with updates.
For nonsocial people, Facebook and digital socializing are easy ways out: yet another distraction, yet another excuse to not force themselves into the real world, to not put themselves out there to meet people, to mingle. I've actually seen people take fake phone calls or pretend to be texting at parties simply because they wanted to remove themselves from the social scene. In college, there was this kid who would always be walking around campus with his phone to his ear. The rumor was that there was never anybody on the other end of the receiver--that this kid just pretended to be talking on the phone so that he wouldn't have to say hi or socialize with people he ran into on campus. And I get it: sometimes it's awkward to talk to people; sometimes it's scary to meet people for the first time; sometimes it's hard work to carry a conversation. But these are basic life skills that people are no longer learning because they don't have to. Why call someone when you can text?
The beauty of technology--especially the Internet--for a loner is that it disguises antisocial behavior. In the past, loners would have been considered wallflowers--people who hung back at a party or walked around with their eyes to the pavement. Today, they're able to hide their antisocial tendencies behind the artificial society of the online world.
Social people, according to this article, seem less affected by the isolating affects of social media, but that doesn't mean they're immune. The impact that the Internet has on them is equally concerning, but for another reason: It is cheapening the intimacy of human interactions. I was standing in line at the store the other day, bored, when I overhead the two twentysomething girls in front of me talking about some boy that one of them was dating. "When was the last time he texted you?" the other asked. Sigh. Wouldn't it be nice if a guy you're dating actually called you on the phone instead of resorting to texts and emoticons to communicate how he feels about you? That example is pretty milquetoast and standard, but here's one that's not: When I was in college, a friend of mine received an e-mail out of the blue from this guy she was friends with--but not intimately. It turns out that he was looking for something more. In his e-mail, which was full of stiff and stilted prose, he asked my friend if she wanted to hook up with him that night, as if he was scheduling some kind of business meeting with her. Why resort to email to communicate that message when he could have done so in person? He felt pressed for time. "The term is almost over," he explained.
No doubt about it, Facebook allows us to forge connections and friendships to people we know and don't know--a beautiful thing, in many respects. But the culture of Internet communication is warping our ability to communicate as intimately and meaningfully with each other as we otherwise would.