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Why Does Social Media Make Us Lonelier?

blog top 03-09 Photo by Stefan Spassov on Unsplash

In her 2013 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, MIT professor Sherry Turkle explored the role of technology in human connection. She worried that we’d replace real intimacy with superficial online connections. As we developed ever more artificial connections, we’d lose or forget something at our core.

“People are lonely,” she wrote. “The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.”

When the book was released, some accused Turkle of being a technophobe. Turns out, she was right on the money. In fact, studies suggest that she might’ve even undersold tech’s problems a bit. Turkle worried that people would forget how to be alone. Turns out, one of the biggest problems we have is that we still feel alone—even when we’re technologically surrounded.

A new story from Bloomberg reminds us about something that we’ve already known: Social media can make us feel lonelier. Even though social networks such as Facebook and Instagram are built around the promise connecting people with one another, Bloomberg reports that “Internal researchers acknowledged that Meta’s social networks could be exacerbating loneliness instead of alleviating it.”

From the story:

Another study from November 2018 … found that certain Facebook experiences increase loneliness—like seeing “negative posts or hurtful comments,” seeing friends having fun without you, or seeing posts that lead to social comparisons. Facebook use made people feel “less lonely” than some other activities, like using Twitter or dating apps. But people also said using Facebook increased loneliness more than other activities its researchers surveyed, including video games and TV.

Research also found that more time you spend on Facebook, the lonelier you’re likely to feel. Another interesting stat: One study found that 42% of users felt simultaneously more and less lonely after using Facebook.

That doesn’t seem to make sense, right? But in context, I totally get it. When you’re on Facebook or another social network, you really are “connecting” with people, in a way. You read updates from friends, see pictures of family. It can help us feel a part of the action even when we’re scrolling through our feeds.

But while those updates may make us feel a little closer to loved ones and acquaintances, they also remind us how far away we are. And sometimes—if we see friends at a get-together we didn’t attend or vacation photos from associates from a place we’ll likely never be able to see—that can spark even more difficult emotions: jealousy or insecurity or anger. It can make us feel more isolated than ever.

It reminds me of what it was like to attend “virtual church” during the height of COVID-19, when most sanctuaries shut their doors. That experience helped make me feel connected to my own particular faith community. But even though that connection was better than nothing, it also emphasized that the connection couldn’t replicate what “church” is for so many people. You can bring the sermons and songs into your home, but you can’t really duplicate community.

Again from Turkle’s book: “Whether you are online or not, it is easy for people to end up unsure if they are closer together or further apart.”

With COVID restrictions being lifted or relaxed in most parts of the country, we feel like we’re getting back to normal again. We’re filing back into churches and movie theaters. And perhaps many of us are grateful that the internet and social media allowed us to connect with each other as much as we did.

But the connective give and take of Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms remains. While it can be better than nothing, it can’t replace real, face-to-face connection. God designed us to live in community—incarnational real community, not a virtual one.

Back when the Apostle Paul was doing his thing, he communicated with many a church via letter. When he was traveling as much as he was, it was the next best thing he could do to being there in person. I’m sure if the internet had been around back then, he would’ve done plenty of Zoom meetings with the Ephesians and Colossians.

But he knew letters could not replace human contact.

“As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy,” he wrote in 2 Timothy 1:4. In 1 Thessalonians chapters 2 and 3, he tells his faraway flock about his “great desire to see you face to face.” In Romans 1:11-12, Paul writes, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”

Connection, real connection, can’t be done virtually, no matter how good the technology is. The Bible reminds us that while we can and should use whatever means we have to connect, true community requires more. It requires presence. It requires us to be with one another.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

2 Responses

  1. -Well, there’s the internet. And then there’s social media.

    I remember several decades ago when magazines like Time and Newsweek were hailing the new “Information Superhighway,” in which the home computers that were becoming more common could be connected with one’s existing phone line to a vast resource of information. The new Internet Age would keep everyone better informed and even better connected.

    I’ve watched things evolve over the decades with a mixture of fascination and dismay. Families and friends will get together at a restaurant or bar, and spend most of the time in silence, hovering over their respective smartphones. There was a time when someone walking alone on a sidewalk, talking out loud and gesticulating wildly would be pegged as schizophrenic; these days it’s more likely to be earbuds. Compaints about the “mainstream media” notwithstanding, people now have the ability to customize their own cultural and political echo chambers, exposing themselves to only those sources of information that confirm their own biases. And of course social media is every conspiracy theorists’ best friend; as soon as some nutty idea goes viral, it’s too late to hold anyone accountable. The people behind QAnon know this better than anyone.

    Me, I still like talking with people face to face. I do NOT carry a phone with me everywhere I go. I’m trying to hold onto my humanity in what little time I have left in this world, while more and more people have become smartphone zombies. All the digital gadgets that were supposed to keep us better connected are instead isolating us from one another, changing our language and the way we communicate, corrupting any sense of social community and civic responsibility. Social media is making us self-centered and narcissistic.

    Sometimes all I need is a nice long walk in the woods with friends.

  2. -Turkle was right on. The pandemic has only reinforced the lesson that humans are social beings who find fulfillment in face-to-face social interaction, unmediated by technology. It’s good for democracy, it’s good for families, and it’s good for our souls.