There are a lot of hypotheticals around the question: “if we are lonelier, is our technology to blame?”
A recent article in The Atlantic says “yes” and “yes,” with the title alone being a giveaway: “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”
Writing in Slate, Eric Klinenberg (author of “Going Solo”) says “no” and “no.” We’re not lonelier, and it’s not Facebook’s fault.
“The quality and quantity of Americans’ relationships are about the same today as they were before the Internet,” he writes, citing the work of Claude Fischer, the author of “Still Connected.”
Which is lovely if true—and yet the question persists.
The question “are we lonelier today than we were back when?” has a long pedigree—and the fact that it won’t go away does suggest that at the very least a substantial portion of the population thinks they are, in fact, lonelier. And isn’t theirs the opinion that counts?
At the same time, the fact that the question has been asked for so long—Rollo May was writing about it in the 1950s in books like “The Meaning of Anxiety” and “Man’s Search for Himself”—suggests that perhaps we are not lonelier now – but we were plenty lonely then. In fact, while May couldn’t have imagined Facebook 50 years ahead, he did suggest that the loneliness and isolation people were coming to therapists to address in the 1950s was predictive: it was going to become much more widespread in the coming decades.
“A relatively small number of people—those who come for psychotherapeutic help in the process of their struggle for inner integration—provide a very revealing and significant barometer for the conflicts and tensions under the surface of society,” he wrote. “This barometer should be taken seriously, for it is one of the best indexes of the disruptions and problems which have not yet, but may soon, break out widely in the society” (May, 1953, p. 18).
It seems then that we are not “lonelier” today than we were 50 years ago—but that more of us are as lonely today as some of us were 50 years ago.
If this is the case, Facebook is cleared of the charges brought against it: the neurotics and Beats of the 1950s weren’t predicting social networking, they were predicting the breakdown of institutions that hold us together—the fraying of social ties, families, and the loss of a sense of common purpose. These things have undoubtedly happened—and unquestionably have made us lonelier.
But Facebook isn’t out of the woods. The more interesting issue brought up by Stephen Marche’s Atlantic article is not the one raised by the title, but one brought up midway through: we are not lonelier in the digital age, but the notion of what it is to be alone is changing:
“The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude. The new isolation is not of the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic, or that of the astronaut who blasts into new worlds. Facebook’s isolation is a grind. What’s truly staggering about Facebook usage is not its volume—750 million photographs uploaded over a single weekend—but the constancy of the performance it demands. More than half its users—and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what 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.”
Humanistic psychology tells us that there is a redemptive power to solitude: it allows for reflection, self-realization, and psychological integration of one’s deeper urges with daily life. If one can’t get away, humanistic psychologists fear, we may lose a key aspect of what it means to be human.
“Solitude can be isolating but it is not generally alienating,” says Kirk Schneider, the New Existentialist and Saybrook faculty member, in his book, “Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation.” “To the contrary, it is frequently renewing, deepening, and strengthening … In this era of cell phones and instant messaging, solitude can clear a space for what really matters in one’s life and for how to pursue what really matters.”
But you have to be able to turn off to get it— and increasing numbers of us can’t (or won’t) do that.
Meanwhile Sherry Turkle, one of key researchers studying the sociological impact of the internet, wrote in a recent New York Times essay (“The Flight From Conversation”) that our increasing reliance on digital devices as intermediaries between ourselves and others is making us worse at connecting with real people.
“As we get used to being shortchanged on conversation and to getting by with less, we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether,” she writes. “We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.”
Thus, the problem isn’t that we are lonelier than before. Rather, the problem is that at a time when the cultural institutions that bound us together have increasingly broken down, we are replacing them with a technology that makes it harder for us to handle real people—both their presence and their absence. We are lonely without recourse to solitude, which is something genuinely different.
Social networking didn’t create this problem. Indeed, part of the reason we are so eager to use it is that we are so hungry for a new way to connect with people. But thanks to its influence, we are getting worse at dealing with real people when they are around, and worse at being alone when they’re not. Everyone is increasingly stuck in a no-man’s land where everyone is connected and no one is satisfied.
Facebook isn’t making us lonely, but it’s making it hard for us to be anything else. It’s hard to think of a worse environment for meaningful personal growth.
May, R. (1953). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Dell Publishing.
— Benjamin Wachs