A student once asked me at a talk about the relationship with college-aged students and social media. I speak about it somewhat in my presentation and I’ve written about it in another blog post. Yet, there has been more research done on the relationship between social media and loneliness since I wrote that post and I wanted to share some of it.
One thing individuals do when they post on social media is they are most often sharing highlights or interesting aspects of their lives. The constant barrage of one photo after another of someone at a party, or enjoying the day with their family can make one feel as though they’re missing out. And it doesn’t even mean that one feels as though s/he is missing out on something with those around them (a friend’s party, perhaps). It can mean that one feels as though they’re missing out on fun in general. They may think, “Here I am, scrolling through my phone at home by myself, and my friends are having a fun time.”
Another thing to note is that social media is a curated medium. While I mentioned this in my blog post on this subject before, I’d like to expand upon it. When you think about it, what are people doing when photographed? The automatic reaction of most people is to smile. Yet we don’t see what their experiences were immediately before or after that photograph.
That said, social media use can be a good thing. It can allow us to stay in touch with friends and family members who are far away from us. It can help us find out when events are taking place and make connections with new people from all over the world. What we need is to educate people (including students) about social media and technology in general. These devices and opportunities are upon us but no one learned beforehand about the possible repercussions of too much use. Social media can become addicting, like anything else that gives us a buzz from what our brains recognize as a positive interaction.
Too much social media usage can lead to periods of loneliness, though. It can feel isolating to see others live what we perceive to be exciting, fun lives, when ours may not be the same. Yet, that curated existence isn’t true to form. It’s the responsibility of parents, schools, and childhood development organizations to educate everyone on the role that social media plays on mental health. They also bear responsibility to help teach the ways in which social media can lead to addiction and loneliness.
In May the health insurance company Cigna produced the results of a study on loneliness. The most surprising piece of information was the group that suffers the most: young adults.
At first thought it doesn’t seem logical that those in their teens and early twenties would have such high rates of loneliness. Yet, the current train of thought is that loneliness amongst youth is due to a couple of reasons. First, youth haven’t developed an understanding of picking up on social stimuli. In other words, the more one pulls into loneliness, the lower their self-esteem can go. Others (friends, family, acquaintances) can try to draw the lonely individual in to relationships. But this may lead to the individual being more resistant to that attempt. Youth have a difficult time of understanding the sincerity of positive connections. This causes them to draw further into their loneliness.
I speak of this from personal experience, too. I went to a small liberal arts university that was fairly conservative. To put it in musical terms, my school was very pop radio and I was more punk rock. I did have some connections and friendships, but when I received an invitation to a party, I often declined. Granted, much of this was due to my depression (which I’ve covered before). Yet the two fed off one another. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that others had a genuine interest in being my friend and so I withdrew further. It took years of therapy and coming to accept I was someone worth loving for me to believe others when they asked me to do things with them.
The other primary issue with youth and loneliness is the internet, especially social networking. Some teenagers find the web to be a good place to escape from society. (This isn’t relegated to teens, of course.) The possibility to avoid awkward social interactions and use the internet, instead, is appealing. Witnessing others living curated lives can be deceiving, though. When one views others engaging in fun occasions, it can leave the lonely teen feeling as though she or he is even further engulfed in loneliness. As one article stated: “Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
Utilizing the web isn’t always a bad thing. As Rebecca Nowland, Elizabeth Necka, and John Cacioppo point out: “When the Internet is used as a way station on the route to enhancing existing relationships and forging new social connections, it is a useful tool for reducing loneliness…. This suggests that lonely people may need support with their social Internet use so that they employ it in a way that enhances existing friendships and/or to forge new ones.” (“Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World?” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 13(1) 70– 87).
Thus, like most things, it comes down to how we use it. The fast growth of the internet and our readying acceptance of everything associated with it has caused us to leap first, without looking. My hope is that, through the work of schools, parents, non-profits, and the mental health community, we can teach everyone—and especially teens—good boundaries in their use of the internet so to avoid the frustrations of loneliness.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.