Loneliness In The Age Of Social Media: How To Form Real Connections In A Digital World
Technology was invented to bring us together. However, studies show that technology may be driving us apart.
According to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the more time you spend on social media, the more socially isolated you feel. Millennials spend nearly six hours a week on social media and report higher levels of loneliness than any other age group. “What we know at this point,” says Holly Shakya, who worked on the 2017 study, “is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being.”
The more time you spend on social media, the more socially isolated you feel.
This ought to be counterintuitive — the term “social media” does have the word “social” in it after all — but anyone who spends any time on social media knows how divisive and harmful it can be. Hiding behind their avatars, people spew rage and hate at those who disagree with them. Carefully curating their photos and anecdotes, people present perfect versions of themselves that make others feel inferior. Did you ever see that movie Surrogates, where everyone sits in a room alone controlling their younger, sexier robot who goes out into the world as them? In a lot of ways, social media is kind of like that.
So what can we do? How can we make our way out of social-media-induced isolation and back into society? Is there a way to combat the loneliness Millennials feel? And does social media play any part in it? Here are a few suggestions:
Be Thoughtful and Careful about Your Social Media Use
One of my dearest friends is someone I met on Twitter. We would never have met without social media — we live in different states — but once we’d each determined that the other wasn’t some sort of ax murderer (or a Surrogates-like avatar masking a seedy interior), we took our friendship off Twitter. It’s not that we never interact on Twitter anymore — we do, and frequently — but our actual friendship takes place via text message, email, the occasional phone call, and an in-person meeting we hope to repeat when time and finances allow.
Social media really can be a wonderful thing. It can connect you with people you would never otherwise meet from places all over the world. It can connect you with people who share your interests or your politics, when you may live in an area where your particular worldview is in the minority. It can be a wonderful thing. But you have to remember that the way people present on social media isn’t always the way they truly are.
But you have to remember that the way people present on social media isn’t always the way they truly are.
If you’ve met someone online — or joined a group of people — that you feel a genuine affinity with, take your friendship off social media. Text each other, call each other, video chat. Create a group chat or a Google Hangout so your entire group can get together. As much as possible, though you may not be able to meet up in person, try to get to know people as themselves, not their avatars. (Note: Please use caution when doing something like this. Don’t give out any personal details like your address or your kids’ names or anything like that until you’re entirely sure these people are safe.)
Get Out and Meet People IRL
In an article about the 2017 study on social media and isolation, NPR explained that “face-to-face social connectedness is strongly associated with well-being.” Having friends you met online is nice, but you want to at least interact with other people in real life on a regular basis. For some, this is a daunting prospect. If you’re not in school, and your work is a solitary pursuit, your average day may not include much face-to-face human interaction. Or if you’re like me and feel a fair amount of social anxiety, the work it takes to meet new people might feel like a chore. But I’ll tell you now what my mother told me when I was an incredibly shy 18-year-old heading off to college: Join everything.
Join a club, a sports team, a choir, an acting troupe — anything and everything! It doesn’t really matter what you join, it just matters that you do. If you thought you might join a book club, but they’re reading a book that seems uninteresting, doesn’t matter. Join it anyway! The point is not to find a great book, it’s to find great friends.
Ironically, the internet is great for this. Do a Google search for the kinds of things you’re interested in your area and see what pops up. Or join a site like meetup.com. As long as you find situations where people are meeting up in person and attend regularly, you’re going to feel better than if you just stayed home.
As long as you find situations where people are meeting up in person and attend regularly, you’re going to feel better than if you just stayed home.
I know it can seem daunting to show up to a meeting or a club for the first time, but you can work through that. It’s okay to feel nervous; what’s not okay is letting your nerves keep you isolated forever. You will survive a couple of hours of social interaction. Trust me. I’ve tried it. If I can do it, so can you!
Maintain Your Real Friendships
Whether you met them online or in real life, real friendships need maintenance. Friends need to be checked in with on a regular basis. Send a text, call them up, make a plan to have coffee — however you do it, make sure you’re staying in touch. Sure, you might have that one friend who you can go without seeing for years and then get back in touch with as if nothing has happened. But most friends need to hear from us from time to time — and not just in the incredibly public format of social media.
It’s also important to keep track of how your friends are doing. If you have a conversation with someone on Monday about how they’re feeling stressed at work, check in with them on Wednesday and ask how they’re feeling. If it’s hard to remember to do that kind of thing (as it sometimes is for me when I get into full writer/mommy/housewife mode), then put a reminder in your phone about it. I’m serious! Those are the ways technology can really help us stay connected.
It’s also important to keep track of how your friends are doing. If you have a conversation with someone on Monday about how they’re feeling stressed at work, check in with them on Wednesday and ask how they’re feeling.
If you’re an introvert like me, it can sometimes feel like a big task to make plans to go see someone, even when you really like them. But friendships fall away if they aren’t maintained. And part of keeping your friendships is actually seeing (or at least talking to) your friends. So drag yourself out of the house (even if you really don’t want to) and go hang out. You’ll survive.
Human beings are social animals — even if we don’t feel like it all the time. We need the company of other people and the connection that brings. Social media can be a great way to meet people, but only if the friends you make online become friends offline too. And everyone needs to interact regularly with other people in real life, even if those people aren’t necessarily our closest friends. There’s no substitute for actual human interaction. Try it. You’ll be happier.