The average Facebook user has close to 350 “friends.” Yet, the average person has less than 3 meaningful relationships – people with whom they can truly connect and confide. The irony of the “connectedness” that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram proffer is that we’re more disconnected and lonely than ever.
The focus on loneliness is not new. It's been in the headlines for many years as a public health issue. Certainly, COVID played a big role in the increase in loneliness and social media use. During that period of enforced reduced social contact, digital communication played a key part in keeping people in contact with one another both personally and professionally. However, we also saw a correlation between social media use and greater experience of loneliness. More current research suggests that this association goes beyond correlation to causation because more social media use has been found to lead to greater loneliness over time.
In a 2023 study, researchers compared the effects of social media use during and after the pandemic, to see whether any changes introduced by the pandemic in the use and function of social media continued beyond the lockdowns. The findings suggested that actual amounts of use had little impact on loneliness before or after lockdown, but when that use started to interfere with other aspects of life (like real relationships), then people were lonely.
During the pandemic, more social media usage led to more loneliness, and more loneliness led to more social media usage. However, the results showed that following the pandemic, lonely people do not necessarily seek out social media more, but more social media usage makes people feel more lonely.
Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone and social connection isn’t the same thing as human interaction. We know, thanks to a growing body of research, that loneliness and connectedness aren’t external conditions; they are psychological states. One can have thousands of online friends, followers, and connections and yet feel completely alone.
Back in the 1990s, scholars started calling the contradiction between an increased opportunity to connect and a lack of human connection the “Internet paradox.” A prominent 1998 study conducted at Carnegie Mellon showed a correlation between increased Internet usage and increased loneliness. However, they also found that, over time, the Internet predicted better outcomes for extraverts and those with more social support but worse outcomes for introverts and those with less support.
Since then, we've continued to discover how social media adversely impacts connections with others. Mounting evidence suggests that social media use significantly compromised relationship dynamics — including quality time, conflict, and relationship satisfaction regardless of whether the relationship is romantic or not.
In one 2021 study, researchers used Instagram and the app’s time-tracking capability to learn more about the connection between social media and relationship satisfaction. They found an increase in Instagram usage led to a decrease in relationship satisfaction and an increase in conflict and negative outcomes. Moreover, the dissatisfaction, conflict, and negative outcomes triggered an addictive use of Instagram.
Recent data shows that time spent using social media hasn't decreased since the pandemic. In fact, in 2022 we topped the charts: 12½ trillion hours spent online, a new milestone in internet adoption, and new records for social media use. Close to 5 billion people, or more than 60% of the world's population, are active social media users. Statistically speaking, we are more digitally connected than ever.
The average person spends 2 hours and 24 minutes on social media every day.
The average American checks their mobile device 159 times a day.
Users will spend 4 trillion hours on social media this year.
46% of Americans say they watch more user-generated content on social media than they watch movies and television on streaming services.
Furthermore, according to Data Reportal, spending more than two hours a day posting, tweeting, and watching videos is just a fraction of the total time users spend online every day. Americans spend more than 6 ½ hours a day online, which means social media makes up less than a third of their total online time.
Phubbing: the act of snubbing a person in a social setting by focusing on one’s smartphone (i.e., scrolling social media or checking notifications while interacting with someone).
And yet, despite all of that connectedness, loneliness continues to plague us. A recent study by Gallup and Meta, "The Global State of Social Connections," highlights that loneliness continues to be a public health issue even after the isolation of the pandemic has passed. The survey, which interviewed people aged 15+ in 142 countries from June 2022 to February 2023, show that, globally, 25 percent of respondents between 15 and 18 years old feel "very lonely" or "fairly lonely." This is even higher among those aged 19 to 29, with 27 percent of participants experiencing significant levels of loneliness.
"We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher." - Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States
The Evolution of Technology Interference with Human Connection
However, we can’t blame loneliness on Facebook or Twitter. Social media platforms are merely the next evolution in a long history of technology-inspired interference with human interaction. The invent of the telephone decreased the number of people who would have otherwise just walked next door to talk to a neighbor. Self-checkouts at the grocery store enable us to stock the pantry without speaking to a register clerk. Mobile apps and kiosks at fast food restaurants make it possible to order, pay, and pick up a meal without interacting with a single human being.
Every time I go to the post office, I have a choice. I can take my package to the postal worker or I can bypass the postal worker and let the machine serve me. Without exception, I’ll wait for a machine before I wait for the person. I can say that it’s faster and more convenient, but the truth is that technology has just made it easy not to interact with real people.
Which raises a few fundamental questions:
· Have social networks and technology skewed our definition of what it means to interact with others?
· Just as technology makes it easier for people to connect and engage, does it also make it easier for people to disconnect and disengage?
A while ago, I shared a piece titled, How Much is a “Like” Worth? Whether you blog, vlog, or share someone else’s, checking all those looks, likes, and shares is part of the game. The pull of social media addiction isn’t all in our heads. It’s quite real, thanks to two neurotransmitters: dopamine and oxytocin.
Every positive interaction on social media activates the reward center in the brain and gives us a little boost of dopamine. It feels good and so we keep coming back for more. When we connect with others, the brain produces a hormone called oxytocin. It’s often called the cuddle drug or the love hormone because the strongest surges are produced during breastfeeding and sex. But, we generate it when we feel a sense of belonging or connection. And, the brain has a hard time differentiating between a face-to-face connection and an online connection.
When we share content that people like and share and comment on, we get a healthy dose of those good chemicals. But, we also gain social currency. Overwhelmingly, people feel better about themselves when others react positively to what they post on social media. Conversely, when people don’t acknowledge us online, our social currency goes down along with our self-image.
When people like my posts, I know I’m important.
When people don't like my posts, I know I’m insignificant.
While technology and social media enables us to interact with people, enhance communication and personal connections, it also provides just as many opportunities for rejection and ostracism as it does for connection. Blocking, unfriending, muting, unfollowing, and ghosting all make disconnecting and terminating relationships quick and easy. Unfortunately, not painless. While it may seem hypersensitive and dramatic to classify these behaviors as hurtful, it’s the way we are wired to experience social rejection.
The same areas in our brains are activated when we experience social rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why we feel hurt when only 5 people like that selfie or our closest colleagues don’t retweet that LinkedIn article. It’s why ghosting is considered a form of emotional cruelty.
The irony of social media lies in the illusion of connection. We look to technology to engage with others and that same technology makes it easier to disengage and protect ourselves from human to human interaction. Never before have we had more opportunity for social interaction. Perhaps it’s time to redefine the meaning of engagement.