How tech and social media are making us feel lonelier than ever
You've had a social day. Two hundred Facebook friends posted birthday messages, your video of Mr. Meow shredding the toilet paper stash got dozens of retweets, and all the compliments on your latest Instagram selfie have you strutting with an extra swagger. Still, you can't help but notice an ache that can only be described as loneliness.
That we feel this way even when hyperconnected might seem like a contradiction. But the facts are clear: Constant virtual connections can often amplify the feeling of loneliness.
"Internet-related technologies are great at giving us the perception of connectedness," says Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist who's written about the intersection of psychology and tech. The truth, he says, is the time and energy spent on social media's countless connections may be happening at the expense of more rooted, genuinely supportive and truly close relationships.
Loneliness, that most universal human condition, existed long before we could compare follower counts, of course. "Loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man," wrote the novelist Thomas Wolfe. But it's impacting an increasing number of people, according to studies, with some even warning of a loneliness epidemic. At least one scientist is working on a pill to ease its pain.
Technology can't shoulder all the blame for our loneliness. Temperament, mental health and isolating events like cross-country moves, job changes, divorces and deaths of loved ones also play a huge role. Plus, there's the question of causation versus correlation: It's hard to tell whether we're more lonely because of all the time we spend online or we're spending so much time online because we're more lonely.
But experts say our interactions with technology shape the experience of being lonely in an undeniable way. It's not just that tech creates an illusion of connection. Endless possibilities for interactions lower our tolerance for solitude while raising expectations about the number, speed and frequency of our connections.
"Our culture has put upon us these expectations that if we're going to be successful we need to have a huge network of contacts," says Susan Matt, a history professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, who specializes in the history of emotions. "That extra set of expectations makes the experience of aloneness even harder. Our grandparents, our great-grandparents, didn't think they were going to have an average of 338 Facebook friends."
Matt, along with Luke Fernandez, a computing professor at Weber State University, explore the connection between tech and emotion in their 2019 book Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter. Scouring letters, diaries and memoirs, they found that even though our Facebook-free ancestors felt lonely too, they had more modest expectations about the number of friendships they should have. They also considered loneliness an inescapable part of being human.
Our forebears also weren't confronted with endless Instagram-perfect vacation photos and posts about kids who seem incapable of anything but cuteness. Numerous studies have found social media can lead to feelings of depression, inadequacy and isolation as people compare their lives with everyone else's carefully curated versions.
Many of the subjects Matt and Fernandez interviewed for their book talked about this sort of FOMO, or fear of missing out. "It made people's anxieties more apparent," Matt says, giving them a "sense that was something going on and they weren't a part of, that sense of being neglected or abandoned."
Loneliness, a big business
Technology, as COVID-19 has made more clear than ever, can link people in amazing and unparalleled ways. It crosses geographical borders, broadens communities and opens the world to those with otherwise limited access. But these benefits can come at a cost. "[Technology] can distract us with endless activities that occupy our mental bandwidth and prevent us from recognizing the dearth of relationships that may mark our social lives," Aboujaoude says.
It can also prevent us from enjoying potential rewards of loneliness, and its close cousin, boredom. Both can, at least in limited doses, lead to self-awareness, creativity and a deeper appreciation for meaningful relationships.
But loneliness can be devastating, even terrifying. A dark veil. A weight on the heart.
"Loneliness and a dangerous world like the one we're in add up to a challenging combination," says Aboujaoude, whose books include Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality. "They produce a sense of vulnerability and can make people feel they lack a safety net or lifeline. If not recognized and addressed, they can also contribute to depression and other negative mood states."
A 2018 survey from health services company Cigna found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out, though social media use on its own is not a predictor of loneliness levels. The researchers evaluated 20,000 subjects 18 or older using the well-established UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-item questionnaire developed to assess subjective feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
"The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness," journalist and author Norman Cousins wrote. We are inherently social creatures, with anthropologists saying our social interactions have played a major role in our evolution as a species.
Given how excruciating loneliness can feel, it comes as no surprise that hardware and software that promise instant connection hold such broad allure.
"They're intent on selling us cures for loneliness," Fernandez says of companies marketing eternal connectivity. "That's what social media is partly about, a way of commodifying and pathologizing loneliness and offering us a cure. If there is an epidemic of loneliness, it goes hand in hand with the imperatives of capitalism."
He calls it the "loneliness industry."
Dan Schawbel wrote Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation and advises workplaces on current trends as managing partner of the firm Market Intelligence.
He agrees that tech has a huge stake in making devices, apps and services that feel impossible to put down. But we aren't defenseless in the face of digital wiles, he stresses.
"It's our fault and technology's fault," he says. "Big technology companies are designing their devices to be addictive because that's their business model ... but we are also guilty because you can put technology down, you can unplug. It is a choice."
Tech and personality, a history
Technology shaped emotions and habits long before Instagram likes and Twitter retweets.
When mirrors became affordable in the late 19th century, for example, they "made people think about how they looked to others much more than they had before," historian Matt notes. Photography, similarly, expanded portraits beyond the realm of the wealthy, democratizing people's ability to present themselves in images, and simultaneously ratcheting up their levels of self-scrutiny.
Then the 1920s and 1930s brought a technology that could suddenly fill the silence with the turn of a knob: the radio. It was harder to feel alone with the family gathered in the living room sharing in Orson Welles' familiar "mighty Wurlitzer of a voice," as one critic called it.
We're used to inviting YouTubers into our homes, but back then, "this idea that you could have companions in your home piped in from elsewhere was something to marvel at," Matt says. It also bred an intolerance of aloneness, she says, like the one many attribute to smartphones and the internet.
Look no further than the constant parade of Zoom activities that fill our lives during lockdown to see that aloneness is a state many would much prefer to avoid.
"But nothing makes a room feel emptier than wanting someone in it," poet Calla Quinn wrote.
The Cigna study found that people who engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face to face. Researchers who study loneliness say technology can help establish and enhance meaningful connections. But it can't replace them.
Schawbel cites research from Oxford University that found out of 150 Facebook friends, you can truly count on only four, on average, when you need a real friend. The kind who picks you up from the hospital after a procedure, helps you pack on moving day and listens to you dissect your breakup for the 16th time because you need to process it just once more, promise.
"If we know through all these studies that the root of happiness is relationships," he asks, "why are we letting technology deceive us into thinking we have more than we have?"
Enter Zoom fatigue, the much-discussed condition du jour, which could end up being a harbinger of a renewed reach for connections beyond Facebook birthday messages.
"What we've learned from coronavirus is the more we use technology, the more we actually want to be in person connecting to other people," he says. "It's pushing us to be more human."