Everyone’s Lonely on Facebook

Last month, I considered the anxiety and other forms of emotional distress that many students seem to be experiencing at North American universities. I also suggested that I think it would be wrong to attribute these mental and emotional health issues to simple inadequacy or weakness on the part of these students — to, say, their inability to cope with the normal stresses of life, some of which can, of course, be exacerbated by the particular stresses of university education.

Rather, I observed that I now think of these students as being akin (metaphorically-speaking) to canaries in a coal mine: they are responding earlier, and in more dramatic ways, to the social stresses and anxiety-producing events we are all experiencing. Thus their sometimes abnormally anxious, sometimes strangely indifferent selves, should serve as a warning about conditions in the larger culture which, if not adequately addressed, are likely to produce in more and more of us either acute anxiety (“everything is getting worse, and there’s nothing I can do about it!”) or the kind of indifference that holds that nothing really matters.

The causes of anxiety, indifference and angst are obvious and therefore easy to identify. Off the top of my head, I can list insecure work, predictions about the dire and unstoppable effects of climate change and environmental collapse, frightening and/or buffoonish political leaders (and Canadian politicians, from all political parties, are no exception), terrorism and the refugee crisis. I am sure readers will have no difficulty adding other items to this list. While the causes of student anguish — anguish that, I fear, will similarly afflict more and more of us — are obvious, the ways in which we might respond are more unclear, diverse, and diffuse. Over the next few columns, I want to consider these responses, as well as possible antidotes to them. This month, I will consider loneliness, next month acedia, and the following months our strange relationship with our material possessions, and the human and environmental cost of this relationship.

 

University students are often lonely. Back in September 2016, the CBC reported that loneliness is a major contributor to poor mental health in university students. A survey conducted for the National College Health Assessment organization revealed that nearly 30% of students who answered the survey’s questions had recently “felt very lonely,” and that “nearly half of the students surveyed felt debilitatingly depressed in the past year.” Loneliness, of course, is not restricted to university students (and, indeed, on the face of it, one would expect them to feel less lonely than members of the general population, because university classes and campus activities offer many opportunities to make new acquaintances who often become lifelong friends), but afflicts Canadians more generally.

Statistics from the 2016 census showed 28.2% of Canadian households have only one person living in them, and a CBC report from 2017 suggested that many of those people are lonely. But it also noted that psychologists say living with others is no guarantee against loneliness, which is not simply a function of how many relationships we have or how often we spend time with other people, but, rather, of the quality of our relationships.

Sam Wolff from Phoenix, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Photo by Sam Wolff from Phoenix, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Utah, told the CBC that psychologists measure loneliness along three dimensions: first, “structural – presence or absence of others”; second, “Functional – what relationships do”; and, third, “Quality – the positive or negative aspects of relationships.” Loneliness, then, while related to social isolation, is not identical to it:

While social isolation has to do with objectively lacking relationships, loneliness is about how you perceive your level of social support.

Someone, then, might be in a number of relationships, but feel lonely if those relationships are of poor quality.

Moreover, it is clear that loneliness is bad for us. Holt-Lunstad noted that social connections are associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death. Loneliness is:

…comparable to the risk of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day… It exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, it exceeds the risk of physical inactivity, obesity, and it exceeds the risk of air pollution.

 

The increase in rates of loneliness might seem strange in an age in which we have a plethora of social media to choose from and to spend time with. Like many readers of the Spectator, for example, I have a Facebook account. I can check on it every day — or even multiple times a day, if I so choose — and I can use it to keep up with the activities of my friends, and can get responses from them when I make posts about my own adventures. At the very least, Facebook has allowed me to get birthday greetings from people I haven’t seen since high school – indeed, if I am totally honest, even from people who would not have bothered to wish me a “happy birthday” in high school. Can social media, which seem to allow us to build connections with others, provide a solution to the problem of loneliness?

Ironically, there is evidence that, far from reducing loneliness, social media actually make many of us feel even more socially isolated and lonely. In a fascinating article published several years ago in The Atlantic (“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”) Stephen Marche argues, with much supporting evidence, that Facebook “friends” are no substitute for real ones, and that even when our Facebook friends are also genuine friends in “real life,” Facebook adds nothing to, and may even detract from, those relationships.

On the plus side, Facebook allows us to have the illusion of intimacy without any of its dangers: Marche notes that:

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. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.

Moreover, what we usually see on Facebook are what we might call images of carefully curated lives, images that give the impression of complete and total happiness on the part of those who are living them. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with trite but uplifting memes, pictures of graduations, holidays in tropical places, happy pets, weddings, anniversary celebrations, pictures of various triumphs (professional or personal), announcements of impending grandchildren, as well, of course, of pictures of delicious-looking plates of food.

As Marche puts it, the price of Facebook’s “smooth sociability” is:

…a constant compulsion to assert one’s own happiness, one’s own fulfilment. Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy – it’s exhausting… The relentlessness is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But not all the time, not every morning, before we even pour a cup of coffee.

Not only does Facebook not help us to overcome loneliness, Marche reports that there is some evidence that it exacerbates this condition. If your own life is not going so well, if some of your relationships are troubled, being constantly presented with images of people seemingly living wonderful, happy, and successful lives just makes you feel worse about your own. The evidence, according to a researcher quoted by Marche, is clear:

The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are… The greater the proportion of online interactions, the more lonely you are.

While we are all potentially afflicted by loneliness — and may, in fact, even be experiencing the feeling of loneliness right now — my students (and university students in general) are perhaps more fortunate in this regard than most of us. We, their instructors, are constantly on the lookout for signs of social distress, and universities today provide a multitude of support services for students who are struggling. Moreover, unlike most of us, university students are, indeed, at a point and place in their lives where they have multiple opportunities to meet new people and develop new friendships. For the rest of us, less time spent on social media and more time spent hanging out with friends in the “real world,” joining political or community organizations, and doing volunteer work, are probably the best antidotes we have to loneliness.

 

Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.

 

 

 

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