Last month’s issue of The Atlantic Magazine featured a cover story asking whether social media — from Facebook to Twitter — is making us intrinsically more lonely. It’s a provocative and disturbing premise but I’m not sure it holds up to close scrutiny.
The story opens with a sad anecdote about former Playboy Playmate and cult movie star Yvette Vickers, who lay dead in her home for the better of a year before her body was discovered in 2011. Investigations into her final year indicated Vickers, who would have been 83 last August, had grown isolated from friends and relations and instead communicated only with fans via social media. Her computer was still on when they found her body.
The story went viral, capturing our horror of dying alone and our intrinsic fear of loneliness in general. How is it, author Stephen Marche asks, that in an age of unprecedented connectivity, loneliness is on the rise?
FACEBOOK ARRIVED IN THE MIDDLE of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive. Americans are more solitary than ever before. In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households contained only one person. By 2010, nearly 27 percent of households had just one person… it is not just isolation that is rising sharply. It’s loneliness, too. And loneliness makes us miserable.
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. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.
This data, and other anecdotal evidence presented, deeply disturbed me. As most of our readers know, Dr. Bill Thomas has long identified loneliness as one of the primary reasons people living in institutional settings suffer. Research indicates that older adults living with chronic conditions and disabilities can still report good quality of life. They don’t suffer because of illness, they suffer from what Thomas calls “the three plagues” of loneliness, helplessness and boredom.
Is it possible that social media is exacerbating the problem of loneliness, especially for older adults? The evidence strongly suggests otherwise, says social media experts Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey, Ph.D. students in sociology at the University of Maryland.
Jurgenson and Rey were asked about The Atlantic article last week on Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR’s Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast. They argued that Marche’s story flies in the face of significant evidence finding that social networking online strengthens relationships and leads to greater social engagement offline.
Indeed, Marche also cites research indicating people who report being lonely on Facebook are also lonely off Facebook. And people who report feeling happy and connected on Facebook also report feeling happy and connected offline. It’s not the quantity of connection you have with others, he argues, but the quality of your interactions with them.
I highly recommend reading the entire article — although I think it’s biased against social media it offers some deep insights.
The takeaway message for me is that authentic relationships and authentic interactions are vastly more important than the size of your network or the number of “Likes” you can generate. The same goes for social media marketing — communications technologies and trends will come and go, but veteran marketers know that powerful and creative messages and brands remain the driving force in selling ideas and products, regardless of the channels you use.