The Internet, Social Media and Loneliness
I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the internet. In particular, about time spent on the internet. Maybe it’s all the blogging of late , but I think it’s even more paying attention as my kids (now in 6th and 8th grade) feel more and more pressure to join in the social media world that many of their friends have already and enthusiastically entered.
In this regard, two recent pieces have caught my attention. The first is the cover story of this month’s Atlantic which asks the question, “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” The answer, in case you don’t want to read the whole article, is a qualified yes. Essentially, according to the author, Facebook and other social media only facilitate our own inclinations: if we are inclined to do things that make us lonely, social media makes it easier.
But I think when you read the statistics of the upsurge in loneliness and depression in our culture that the author shares, it’s hard to remain quite so neutral. Of course Facebook and company aren’t responsible for our loneliness, but they do provide more, I think, than simply neutral space. They actually make it easier to connect without really connecting, to participate in a substitute for community that does not carry the social benefits of actually being in a flesh and blood community. And given how challenging real relationships and real community can be, substitutes are phenomenally tempting. In this regard, I think Facebook has become something like relational junk food – it gives the impression of satisfying real hunger by momentarily filling you up – but the nutritional value is pretty scant and, more than that, it creates cravings for more of the same. (Feed kids Sweet Tarts all the time and not only do they not get the vitamins and minerals they need but broccoli looks worse and worse.)
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Social Media is bad, only that it has to be used with extreme care. In this regard, consider this TEDTalk by Sherry Turkle, entitled “Connected, but Alone?” Turkle is a great one to raise these questions, as she was one of the early adopters and promoters of the internet’s capacity to help us connect with each other. A dozen years later, she’s asking what kind of connections they’re helping us make.
Again, let me be cautious about sounding too down on the internet (something anyone who blogs ought to be very cautious about!). Because ultimately I think the internet is an incredible thing (even if I do worry that my word processor’s dictionary always wants me to capitalize it), and I find the ability it grants me to not only receive incredible amounts of information but also contribute to that pool of information and discourse simply amazing. It is, in fact, something I’m very grateful for. In fact, on some mornings, after reading a great post on someone’s blog or responding to comments on my own, I almost think I could do this for a living, that connecting via the internet is enough. But then I go to class, or pick up my kids, or make dinner with my spouse and am reminded that, at its best, social media facilitate real relationships by bridging some of the distances that separate us, but finally they’re no substitute for the real thing. I guess that’s what I want to teach my kids.
Post image by Phillip Toledano for this month’s Atlantic cover article.