There's lots of research that suggests having strong social connections can increase our overall well-being, help us live longer, and may make those extra years more fulfilling. Honestly though, I really don't think we need too much research to decipher that correlation, do you? Humans are social creatures at the very core. We seek each other out, gather in large groups, cram ourselves into dense cities and constantly go where the action is. People need one another whether they like to admit it or not and when the need to socialize arises, most of us will turn on the bat signal, letting our friends know.
Today, more than ever, people from all walks of life and from nearly every country around the globe are able to communicate with each other thanks to internet connectivity and the platforms known to us now as social media. You know… all those wonderful websites and apps that have gone from being a mere concept to becoming household names over the past decade, sparking millions of people to sign up, log in and connect.
The top dog right now, a social media platform known to us as facebook, went from zero users in 2004 to having over 1.4 billion people signing in and yapping about their lives online in 2015. Considering the U.S. has a little over 320 million people total, well… you can guess the average chance of someone in the United States at least having a facebook user account setup and in use.
QQ instant messaging in China has over 820 million users exchanging words. WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app touts about 700 million users throwing texts back and forth. The ever barren feeling LinkedIn has a surprising 347 million users. Google+ has about 300 million, Instagram right around 300 million, the famous Twitter 288 million, Tumblr carries 230 million and of course who doesn’t know about Snapchat which has just about 200 million peeps passing goofy duck face pictures of themselves around.
Of course these aren't the only social media platforms out there, but they are the most noticed, used, and popular ones that I can mention in order to make a point. TONS of people are using them to communicate with one another. I literally mean “tons of people” when I say that.
Roughly 11 average folks with a western style diet could easily tip the scale towards a ton and we can do a quick calculation using facebook's current user base to see that about 127 million tons of people are using that single platform to check each other out, chat, post photos, share daily routines, console friends, stir up drama, and of course pass around those wonderfully inspiring and sometimes fantastically funny memes we all love to see at least a thousand times each day. (Insert sacrasm here) Doh!
Let’s not forget about good old SMS texting through your cell phone network which was state of the art just a few years ago. If you’re a person of age, ehh hemmm, you might even remember using that cool new flip phone to painfully, but happily, pound out a short message to your bud on the number pad. Before that some of us who couldn’t afford toll calls were using email to write letters to people far away. Screw you post office… thank you Internet!
Recently release findings from a research project called "Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality" suggests that being lonely or feeling lonely can increase mortality by roughly 30%! And, one of the projects authors, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University, was quoted in a CNN article published March 19th 2015, covering this topic, as saying "we should also be concerned with the times when others may be surrounded by others and still feel lonely."
So, why is it… that the world is more connected than it’s ever been in our recordable history, yet people all around me seem more distant, isolated, lonely, depressed, and out of touch with emotional bonds to each other? What the heck is going on?
Before delving into that question through my own experiences, I must be fully honest and open about my own personality. For most my life I've not, in general, been a people person. Growing up in a chaotic broken home filled with some pretty horrible people caused me to become sort of a loner, not seeking out much in the line of companionship, and sometimes feeling uncomfortable in groups, imagining I'm out of place or some sort of misfit.
Oddly enough, that loner mentality gave me a somewhat unique perspective when trying to overcome it by reaching out to my fellow human beings, friends, and family, through social media. I wanted to get some quality time with my peeps, change my attitude, and stay connected with them more like a tight knit family. All the things I tend to avoid. I didn't even realize it until doing a bit of research, but apperently, I was also trying to avoid 'kicking the bucket' 30 percent sooner than I had to!
After a few years of being on social media, sharing my thoughts, photos, and daily shenanigans with a small circle of family and friends, I wasn’t really getting any degree of emotional satisfaction, bonding, or any sense of closeness. Hmmmm In fact, it was quite the opposite!
You know the feeling after having a good time with your friends, spending a nice evening with family you actually like, or when you end a great conversation on the phone with a good pal?
Yeah that! None of “that” was there anymore! Normally, I’d feel pretty good when catching up with my buds, pals, and homies. Sometimes I'd crave more as if hanging out were an addictive chemical compound. After visiting certain family members, I'd feel a little homesick. Not enough to make me want to share a house with them mind you… cuz I’m a loner, but it was enough to miss them almost immediately.
Using social media and texting was missing something. It was missing the ability to give me any amount of lasting emotional gratification. Sure, there's artificially induced, temporary micro feelings induced by seeing emoticons. Ahhh those freakin’ emoticons... How could we ever express written feelings without them?
Smiley face, yeah! :-)
Frowny face, awwwhhh. :-(
Playful tongue out winky face. Double Yeh! That makes me happy ;-P
Those meaningful emotional experiences that reinforce bonding, feelings of closeness, tightness, connection, and being part of a group, they were all gone! Ohh no… Somewhat Confused Sad Face :-/
Can you feel my emotion? You feel me?
To make up for this shallow experience, I needed a daily influx of notifications, likes, tags and messages that included something about me, me and a friend, or me again. Wait… What? I thought this was about them? Staying connected with my family, friends and occasionally those acquaintances that tag me in their posts. Has social media caused me to become narcissistic?
Perhaps a little! In fact, a study by the University of Michigan published April 12th 2013, suggests that social media in general may "reflect and amplify" our culture's narcissism, but let’s save that for another discussion. Winky Smiley Face ;-)
Are we bonding yet?
Everyone, I'm connected to through social media, has gotten into the habit of continuously updating the social media world about everything they do, in detail! Of course, I'm guilty of the same thing, though not to the extent others do.
At this point, who really needs to see those friends or family members in person when both you and them already know every little detail of what the other is doing or is up to? There’s no mystery, no reason to ask questions, or “catch up.” Why would anyone need to see you when everything you're about can be seen in less than 15 seconds at the next red light with only one tap on a smartphone?
Do not look at your cellphones while driving!! Seriously, don’t. Yelling Out Loud Face :-O
THE LONING TREND
I wasn't sure what to call this trend of not needing to physically see people anymore, so for the sake of this article, let’s call it “Loning.”
Well, this new “loning” trend has been sweeping over my circle of peeps for the past few years as more and more of my friends and family have become connected, using social media platforms to communicate. Today, as a result, I barely see any of them in person anymore! Unless of course it's an emergency or a super special occasion. No phone calls for months, no visits, no gatherings, no nothing, except for being tagged in a photo from 2007, when none of us were using facebook!
Sure, we’re all connected, but what am I getting out of it? What are they getting out of it? I get to see and read lots of stuff about what everyone's up to, but since we never physically get together anymore, what’s the sense? Does this mean we no longer need to get together? I think social media is probably a fantastic way to communicate with the in-laws if you have and don’t like them, but surely not the way to go with friends or family you actually like and care about, right?
BEING ALONE TOGETHER
If you are able to coerce friends or family into meeting up in person, you and they might be preoccupied with what is being said and talked about within the virtual world rather than what is being said and talked about in the real world. The whole "being alone together" thing. I know many of you have fallen prey to this behavior, checking your smartphone five times a minute while in a group. I was doing it and most of the people I know constantly do.
How unimportant could each of us be to one another when our attention to someone standing right next to us can be pulled away so easily? And by what? A meme? A sentence about what so and so had for dinner? Really? Those are fairly unimportant pieces of information that may be better to read when your actually by yourself watching paint dry.
Have you ever been out with a friend who seems to be texting five different people the whole time? I have and it’s pretty annoying. But wait, I’ve also been that person doing the texting, posting, and status updating during a hang out. How much companionship quality can there be for someone with you when they only get half your attention? Sometimes it seems like a mere tenth for the extremo social media addicts!
You look at them, and while you’re spewing out less than a sentence worth of words, you see the hunger in their facial expression and notice the body language changing. That urge for the next fix is coming on. They can’t go much longer! Only a few words travel through the air and into their head before they start raising up the new phablet phone in their hand, hitting the power button, and checking that dang screen. Doh!
Holy cow! Who could be posting something so important or texting something so profound as to draw them away from a real person? It’s overpowering and the itch to check that phone is worse than the need for caffeine or a dose of nicotine. To make matters worse, once they finally pull away from that wondrous information machine, look at you and begin to say something, you get the itch to check your phone. What is going on?
Even in the gym people are texting or scrolling through facebook feeds in between weight lifting sets, while walking on a treadmill, peddling a stationary bike, or just sitting on some ab machine. Don't get me wrong. At least these folks are in the gym doing something, and if being in a constant state of connectivity gets them through some physical activity, I say go for it. But, I have to pose the question, it can't wait? Come on, aren't we all supposed to be checking each other out in the gym? I mean... concentrating on our mid-sections, biceps, and butt?
Not only is it odd that we're more drawn to see who's doing what somewhere we're not, sometimes those tidbits of knowledge and short messages we get can leave us more emotionally empty and deprived than before we got them. And don’t try to deny it!
Text and chat messages can end abruptly with no closure because that’s just how we all roll these days. Gone are the days of ending a conversation with “bye” or “see yah” or “talk with you later.” They don’t end! These messages can be forever open ended leaving you in a constant state of uhhhhhhh. At least phone calls still require a bit of closure etiquette. Although… I really hate when someone, including myself, ends a conversation by saying “bye bye” in that stupid talking to a baby voice. Geeeeyodddd!
All messaging can be pretty much the same, open ended, never ending, and for the most part non closing. Very unsatisfying, and what’s even worse is witnessing this type of non-closure transcend into the real world during conversations with others. This along with abrupt subject changes, inaccurate communication queues or just plain talking at the wrong time. Seems like this is part of the loning trend and basic social skills are being lost by starring at our screens too much.
A study by UCLA scientist has even shown this to be a problem. "In Our Digital World Are Young People Losing The Ability To Read Emotions?"
SOCIAL MEDIA ENVY
Okay, it’s pretty obvious many of us have issue with exactly how to balance all the virtual connectivity with real world interaction. Combine this with the fact that quite a few people living average ordinary lives, working and paying ”the man” to get by, might not have the most exciting life style to begin with. Enter social media! When these folks log in, what do they see? An endless stream of posts with pictures showing their virtual friends, coworkers, real friends, and family members engaged in what seems to be a constant state of fun, joy, and meaningful activities.
Hey, they’re all living it up, going for it, kicking the worlds butt, and damn happy every moment of every day, but not you right? How is it that everyone else gets to live the dream, but your status update is something like 'Alarm clock went off but I did not get up, haha'?
I think it's great when a person can become inspired to do great things or better their life style through the example of others, but at the same time I also think some people may believe those others are living the dream all the time. And of course with so many of us posting only the good stuff on social media, yeah, it can look like a full time party going on. This artificial and absolutely bogus impression of people's lives could lead some down a path of feeling bad about themselves, feeling envious and eventually, I’ll say it… Feeling Depressed!
The University of Utah did their part to look into this by having researchers talk to a group of 425 students in 2012. They later released a study that found the more these students used facebook the more they had negative feelings about their own lives. In January 2013, two German Universities conducting a joint study found that one in three people felt worse after visiting facebook and those who were just logged in to look and not really contribute were affected the most. A University of Michigan study published August 14th 2013 showed that frequent use of facebook lead to a decline in the test subjects overall well-being.
No longer is everyone just keeping up with the Joneses next door, in their mind they have to keep up with like 50-100 different Joneses in their town, city, or across the whole USA. The University of Missouri released a study in February of 2015 stating that “If Facebook Use Causes Envy, Depression Could Follow” and Lorne Jaffe, blogging for the Huff Post touches on this in an article called “5 Reasons Why Facebook Can Be Dangerous for People With Depression.”
Now, if popular social media isn't enough to make you question your self-worth, try checking out the local people around you through some of the current apps like Tinder, Baboo, Plenty of Fish or Bumble which reside in the space somewhere between social media and full-fledged dating sites. I did for the sake of research and found out in a matter of days just how shallow and narcissistic we all can be. But I digress...
I DON'T SEE YOU
When I look back at old science fiction stories, movies and television series, I see one huge flaw in the imagination of those writers. I'm not talking about the fantastic technology they dreamt up, the distant worlds or strange aliens always seeking to enslave mankind. I'm talking about the idea that everyone in the future used personal technology only as a tool to achieve goals instead of how it's really used today, as a way to avoid reality. Can you imagine all the actors in the hit TV series Star Trek using their Tricorders to constantly check out what other people on the ship were up to? The show would have never made it past the pilot episode.
To further emphasize the scope of our modern day connected community which is more alone than ever, just put your phone down for ten minutes, go outside and watch people. See how many folks have their heads buried in a smartphone screen while sitting next to another person, walking or even while driving! It’s crazy. People on the street hardly even look at one another anymore and the only person willing to break the ice with conversation is that dude asking for money while holding up the cardboard sign that says ”Will work for food.”
Point is we’re all so connected we are forgetting to look at each other, engage one another and talk. How can you get to know someone, really get to know someone without looking at their face once in a while? Maybe you can connect with someone’s posted interests, their written thoughts about the world, and a typed out list of silly things they aspire to do, but if you don’t spend time with someone in person can you really know them or make a connection to the person?
I’m inclined to say that until we find a balance between social media connectivity and the real world community, trouble is on the horizon. We have to create the balance and maybe think about using social media to arrange physical meetings, get togethers, hang time, skype sessions or even good old fashion phone calls rather than using it in place of those other more fulfilling social activities.
So far, my goal to shed that loner lifestyle has not been going very well in today’s super connected society. Maybe some time back in 2003 would have been a better time to start this process. Honestly, I think people feel more alone now than ever before. You can see it in their faces every day. The emptiness, the shallowness, and the loneliness emanates off them like death emanates from a movie zombie.
Because of this, I have made it a point to log out and disconnect, to not look at my phone during “hang out” time, and to not even log into and check any of my social media accounts for long periods of time. Currently, I’m on a 30 day hiatus from all types of personal digital communication. Two weeks in and I got a phone call from my brother after months of silent lack luster social media only communication. It felt pretty good to talk again. Wow, go figure huh? Winky Smiley Face ;-)
How has social media affected you?
After writing this article, I asked several individuals in my circle to read it and give me some feedback on the content, grammar and flow. One of these individuals, who happens to also be my cousin, read the article then sent me a text message with two words, "it's true." The very next day, he ended up deleting his facebook account, and has claimed multiple times since that not using it or being preoccupied with the constant stream of posts, likes, tags and social media drama has been a great feeling.
I then did a little youtubing to see if anyone has broached the subject in a similar manner as me. Walla! I found a TED talk video titled "Connected, but alone?"
For a little more information on this subject, check out some of these other interesting videos regarding internet and social media usage I found as well.