Thanks to social media, we've become more "connected" to one another than ever before. One would think that's a good thing. Not me. Because there's an ever-growing body of evidence suggesting that social-networking actually makes us more lonely.
One of the characteristics of social networking is the direct relationship between the size of our interactive network and the degree of isolation we experience. The greater the number of our connections and "friends", the more shallow we seem to become.
The greater our web of influence and connection, the more we seem to become ensconced in our own socio-psycho-emotional zip code. In spite of the quantum growth of connecting online, people are isolating themselves emotionally and psychologically in ever increasing numbers.
It's curious that when you sign up for Google+, you're asked to include "…your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with…" Reading between the lines, what's the unspoken message here?
For me, it's about the uneasiness around social media's unintended consequence of separating us from one another, actually creating greater loneliness and separation - in spite of the fact that social media is meant to increase our connection with one another.
Some physicians and healthcare providers now characterize loneliness as an epidemic – and it's one that is on the increase. Bearing in mind the distinction between being "alone" and "loneliness", consider an AARP study in 2010 which suggested that 35 percent of adults over 45 were chronically lonely.
Two questions I would ask are: are you meeting fewer or more people (in real-time) these days? And secondly, when you gather with others would you describe your bonds as less or more meaningful, less or more easy?
This is really to ask how deeply meaningful, purposeful and sincere are your "real-world" relationships? How comfortable are you talking about personal or important matters or issues with those real-world folks with whom you say you have a "relationship"? And is a lack of real connection driving you to relate online, instead?
The trouble is that online, without real human contact, so-called relationships become mere temporary linings of convenience, as easily broken off as they are established. So is it any wonder parents and their children, spouses and partners are seemingly becoming more and more estranged from one another?
All of which also makes me curious about the rise in the numbers of psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors, marriage and family therapists and relationship coaches. They don't seem to have any shortage of clients – so perhaps we're just not talking to, or connected to, our real-world friends as much as we think or say we are.
Chicken and the egg
Key questions to consider here are whether social media is causing more or less (mental, emotional, spiritual and psychological) pain and suffering and whether it is our (mental, emotional, spiritual and psychological) pain and suffering that is causing us to gravitate to social media? In other words, do those of us who feel socially "out of the loop" seek solace in social media?
So I would ask those who habitually use social media to describe - honestly and sincerely - the quality of their relationships with their friends and loved ones. Does what they discover link up with an increased need to engage in social media?
Research tells us there's a host of individuals - characterized as neurotic and lonely - who spend an inordinate amount of time with social media. The question is: "Why?"
Healthy, conscious relationships foster intimacy, trust and deep connectivity. When relationships are replaced by electronic interactions, emotional connection goes missing. And along with it go feelings of warmth and friendship towards the other person
Yet these feelings of warmth are what marriage researcher John Gottman says is the definitive foundational element that determines the sustainability of relationships. When there is no emotional connection, there is no friendship. True emotional connection is blocked by transmission through the ether.
We've created tools that reinforce the casual, but they augur against deeper connection and reduce the opportunity for true heart-felt connection. We don't spend the time it takes to have real intimacy with another person. The sad truth is that the frequency of contact and the number of contacts in our network does not translate into the quality of contact.
The real thing
So, friends, relationships, and connections. How real are they? What is the nature and depth of their friendships? What is the nature and the depth of their intimacy? Is the friendship and intimacy as real as it is in real-life? Can and does social media truly and honestly create healthy friendships? And the operative word here is "healthy."
To be clear, social media is pure and simply a vehicle for connection. It doesn't create loneliness or neuroticism or addiction or anything else. We create those states for ourselves. And this bears repeating. We create these states for ourselves. Nobody, no one or no thing is doing anything TO ME. We're each responsible for our own choices and decisions, online and off.
From what I've seen, heard and read, my take is that when we're comfortable in our own skins, (even with our own discomfort!) and in our day-to-day interactions with others, we tend to be more authentic and mature with others online - and perhaps less likely to need to be online at all. And the converse is also true.
Who am I?
- Are you spending less quality time with those close to you?
- Do you regularly send virtual birthday cards and gifts in place of the "real" thing? Why?
- In what ways do you short-change emotional connection with others?
- Do you feel alone or lonely even when in the company of loved ones? Why?
- Are you addicted to social networking? Can you do without them for a few hours, a day or a week? If not, well, that's addiction.
- Do you engage with your iPhone or Blackberry while you're having a face-to-face conversation with another person? What does that communicate to the other person? Do you care?
- Are you on an electronic leash on weekends, days off and while on vacation?
So if being comfortable one's own skin is a big factor in determining how one "shows up" in social media situations, those whose have a "fake it till you make it" attitude towards life - lacking any real sense of happiness, security or groundedness – are far more likely to adopt a false persona online and far more likely to find that their self-esteem is determined by their updates, tweets and check-ins.
In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, Professor of computer culture at MIT, writes:
"…These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time….The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy…We don't want to intrude on each other, so instead we constantly intrude on each other, but not in "real time."
In our electronic world, more people are connecting, but fewer are relating. And even as it becomes easier than ever to stay "in touch", our capacity to really touch one another is slipping away.
Like it or not, you can't be intimate from a distance.