Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Facebook and Loneliness: Chicken or Egg?

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Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? is a fascinating article by Stephen Marche in the May 2012 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. A brief summary: Facebook, and other social networks, have come during a time when people report feeling more lonely than ever. Researchers have found that heavy users of Facebook are lonelier (and correspondingly more narcissistic) than people who don't use Facebook as often. But the general belief is that the technology isn't making us lonely, it's the way that humans use it.

The article is so well-written that I prefer to use direct quotes (in blue) than to use my own words any further. A few interesting points:

Our society is lonelier than in the past.
A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.

The mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.
Loneliness has physical ramifications
Being lonely is extremely bad for your health. If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to be put in a geriatric home at an earlier age than a similar person who isn’t lonely. You’re less likely to exercise. You’re more likely to be obese. You’re less likely to survive a serious operation and more likely to have hormonal imbalances. You are at greater risk of inflammation. Your memory may be worse. You are more likely to be depressed, to sleep badly, and to suffer dementia and general cognitive decline.
Facebook users and the loneliness connection
Facebook users had slightly lower levels of “social loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with friends—but “significantly higher levels of family loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with family. It may be that Facebook encourages more contact with people outside of our household, at the expense of our family relationships—or it may be that people who have unhappy family relationships in the first place seek companionship through other means, including Facebook. The researchers also found that lonely people are inclined to spend more time on Facebook...
[Researcher Cacioppo says] “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are... The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” 
Does Facebook make us lonely, or are we using Facebook (and other social networks) because we are lonely?
Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse. We make decisions about how we use our machines, not the other way around.

Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact.  

Sherry Turkle, a professor of computer culture at MIT who in 1995 published the digital-positive analysis Life on the Screen, is much more skeptical about the effects of online society in her 2011 book, Alone Together: “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 problem with digital intimacy is that it is ultimately incomplete:
Connection between Facebook and narcissism
The Australian study “Who Uses Facebook?” found a significant correlation between Facebook use and narcissism: “Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, exhibitionism, and leadership than Facebook nonusers,” the study’s authors wrote. “In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.” 
The final word
What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.
The phenomenon of Facebook and other social networks may provide a way to either bolster personal connections (organize a party, for example) or disengage from meaningful relationships. It's all in how the tools are used. Understanding this can help parents educate their kids as they enter into the realm of social networking.

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