Loneliness is both the cause and effect of our social media addiction

[box]Rob Cleaver explores the issue of loneliness in an increasingly global society[/box]

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In a modern society such as our own we are often caught bemoaning a lack of human intimacy, a distance between us and the world. We blame external factors of course, no human readily accepts blame, whilst we nuzzle lovingly with our electronic devices – refreshing, refreshing, refreshing. Modern life dictates increasingly so that we are further geographically from people too, relationships and friendships are easily maintainable across continents and vast oceans because contact is far easier – we type a message, we send it, we don’t lick a stamp and we receive one back. Sometimes we mistake these emojis for meaningful interactions.

The University of Chicago recently published research declaring that, amongst the over 50s, if you self-identified as lonely you were 14% more likely to die young than if you did not, only 5% less than the effects of poverty on longevity. Research published in The Journal of Psychology also demonstrated that more than half of Britons over 65 experienced at least some loneliness and a quarter felt that they were persistently lonely. Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of heart attack, stroke and depression – we don’t just desire human contact, we need it.

Although not true loneliness, a complete lack of human interaction on a day-to-day basis, I would tentatively extrapolate to a younger cohort that loneliness breeds just as lavishly. Yes, as we live longer we are increasingly likely to do it alone but if you look at the generations that come after they too have an issue with loneliness. Modern life is very saturated, our livelihoods and work habits are becoming prolonged and so is our daily use of the internet and social media as we interact virtually with friends in lieu of ever seeing them face to face. There’s very little space left to fit in a human relationship or two. It is increasingly easy to become lost in the sea of seven million people but convince yourself that you’re doing fine with a self-medicating text.

It is this progression of human interaction that makes the recent movie Her, Spike Jonze’s story of a man who falls in love with an operating system, a tale not that far detached from the world in which we live. We are replacing the physical with the virtual – supermarkets, recreation, friendships – and so it would come as no great surprise if a story similar to Theodore Twombly’s were to make the tricky transition from fiction to fact by the year 2025.

The way that society is currently arranged, its see-saw tipped markedly towards success at work, means that young people today feel far more isolated than their parents did at this age and the same for those who took part in the study. Rates of living alone show no signs of plateauing, increasing in altitude past 20%, 25%, 30%. If the story goes that you lose friends along the way as you get older then what happens when you don’t really have any left to lose? Last week I was alone all day, both of my housemates were out until the early hours, and the only person I spoke to was a barista in a coffee shop on a walk I took to waste away the hours. By the evening I felt isolated, I craved some form of interaction as if it were a drug, as if it were the only thing that could keep me alive. If I sent you a message on social media that evening then I did it because I am addicted to you.

It started me thinking that perhaps social media, for all of its positive effects, has an effect on loneliness that wears off over time. Are we able to rightly spin the term ‘follow’ from that of intrigue to a dark shadow loitering in an alleyway waiting for the victim to wander into their grasp? Has social media become a way of reinforcing that human feeling of overinflated importance of self as a mechanism for staving off isolation in a virtual-leaning world? We are intrigued by personalities because we are intrigued by our fellow humans, so the pictures painted by scrolling down timelines easily become a surrogate to interact with. However, I was brought to the attention of a tweet that shone a light on the fact that even the internet fails sometimes to give you what you want. The tweet was from an acquaintance that I’ve met only once that effectively asked the world (his one hundred or so followers on Twitter) what they thought of him. This was a product of loneliness; I often feel ignored, it could say, so acknowledge me and tell me that I am alive, please. Nobody replied.

So the internet is a drug, that is not something new but that it wears off in its application in loneliness is a relatively new concept, especially as solitude becomes an increasingly prevalent part of life. If loneliness does have such a profound effect on our health then we may have to brace ourselves for increasing rates of loneliness related depression as our generation gets older and less able to make new friends through new environments and situations. Depression however is probably no harder to treat than loneliness. It is very easy to tell someone to go out and make friends, get in touch with old ones, see family members more often. It’s often more complicated than that in the vast grey area that is real life. Loneliness and depression are so able to exacerbate the other that it is often almost impossible to go out and interact with someone you’ve never met before and, even when we do manage it, we are far more likely to consider it an actual friendship once we’ve found their relevant handles on the internet.

The internet can do all manner of things, often it is a creative and positive enterprise but this still is unable to stave off those long fingers of loneliness, caught in the doorway trying to get in. It is something we’re always trying to run away from, often distracting ourselves from its pursuit, urging and willing our loneliness to unfollow us and stop favouriting those tweets that are so clearly cries for a friend.

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