Loneliness in the Age of the Internet

Loneliness in the Age of the Internet

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By Bhargavi Venkataraman

With access to millions of people’s thoughts, likes, dislikes, interests, and lives at your fingertips, it seems like this age of humanity should give rise to the most connected population since the beginning of mankind. However, research and conversations around loneliness with social media tell a very different story.

Since its invention in the 1900s, the Internet has played a crucial role in education, work, and leisure. While it has had numerous beneficial effects such as improving efficiency and communication across professions, in the 1990s it sparked debate on whether Internet use harms participation in community life and social relationships and increases loneliness. Loneliness can be defined as an unpleasant sensation arising from lack of adequate social contact and relationships. It can have detrimental effects on health by elevating stress levels, causing mental health disorders and contributing to physical health issues as a result.

Studies have shown that greater internet use is associated with lowered communication with family, a reduction in the size of social circles, and depression and loneliness. This may be due to people investing too much time online and as a result, too little time with their real life relationships or contrarily, lonely people find themself online more as they are seeking connectedness, companionship, and community membership. This is a phenomenon that has been exacerbated with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the extent that loneliness was considered as a major public health issue during this time.

My personal experience with social media is that it has the potential to both be a boon and a curse. I am grateful for it in times like when long distance from friends and family or when connecting with communities you would never otherwise have a chance to meet. However, the problems arise when it starts inciting feelings of FOMO and loneliness after prolonged use and when it preoccupies me to the point that I start losing contact with my real-life connections. At times like this, it seems like my only choice is to completely rid myself of the issue and get off social media.

To begin, I only really use 3 forms of social media: Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Of these, I find that I predominantly use Facebook for its messaging capabilities, Instagram to stay updated with friends and TikTok for entertainment. As such, the first platform that I shut off is TikTok. I thoroughly enjoy scrolling on TikTok and have found so many accounts that connect me to things I am not always able to access in real life such as videos of my homeland. However, when I notice that I’m spending too much time online, I think I could afford to lose those connections and replace them with conversations with my family. Next, I shut off Instagram. I find that this is especially necessary to limit FOMO from seeing everyone’s stories and posts. While it does restrict my interactions with friends, sometimes it is necessary to ask them to message me on a dedicated messages app like through iMessage. I only close Facebook when I am doing a full social media cleanse as I don’t find that it creates many negative feelings in me. It mostly acts as a tool to connect with friends. However, during a cleanse, it might be beneficial to delete it just to prevent any temptations.

Considering all this information, an important question that arises is, what can you do about this issue? The most obvious solution is limiting use of social media, much as I had done previously. While the extent of the limitation might differ according to individual preferences and capabilities, research evidence backs up the fact that cutting back on social media use can have a positive impact on wellbeing. One study looked at cutting back on Facebook use for a month in 3,000 regular Facebook users. The results showed that people missed the online interaction on the platform but observed benefits such as lowered online activity (including in other social media platforms) and increased offline activities such as spending time with loved ones or watching TV alone.

Overall, deactivating Facebook seemed to improve subjective well-being by about 25-40% as much as regular psychological interventions. Another study was done in the University of Pennsylvania with 143 undergraduate students who were asked to follow their regular social media use for 3 weeks or limit Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat use to 10 minutes each per day. Results showed that the group with limited use had reductions in loneliness and depression compared to the control group and that both groups experienced less FOMO and anxiety than their baseline.

As such, in this age of technology and social media, loneliness is an unfortunate side effect of extensive online activity. While it may not be realistic for everyone to do a complete social media cleanse, I highly recommend giving moderated social media use a try. You can do this through self-monitoring, try it out with a friend to keep you accountable or download apps like AppBlock, Flipd, Focus, etc. to help you stay on track. No matter the method, it is sure to have some benefits to your wellbeing!

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