Do social networks increase our loneliness?
According to research, excessive use of technology would be responsible for the deterioration of social relations and an increase in loneliness. Social networks have changed the type of isolation of people, say experts.
We’ve never been so connected. Social networks can strengthen pre-existing relationships and allow new connections to be established. However, overuse can also make us feel more alone.
In Spain, 92% of people have a smartphone and use it mainly to communicate by instant messaging with applications like WhatsApp. We talk more with our family and friends through instant messaging than face to face. In fact, we spend more and more time interacting with digital media. Despite this, one in three people feels lonely.
Unwanted solitude has negative consequences for well-being and health. When persistent, it can lead to adverse changes in our nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems. Unwanted isolation may even increase the risk of death – in the same proportion as smoking and more than obesity and physical inactivity.
So is face-to-face contact better than virtual communication?
An essential pillar of happiness is social relations. People who have more face-to-face social interactions are more satisfied and have a better health status compared to those with a limited social network.
On the other hand, communication through digital platforms allows us to express ourselves and build the community, but it seems to hurt the well-being of people who do not have a support network.
Applications like WhatsApp allow us to connect with anyone at any time. However, the message is more straightforward, and we miss the nuances of facial tone and facial expressions present in face-to-face communication, which are essential for an adequate social exchange.
Besides, there seems to be a positivist bias in virtual interactions; we expose more positives than negatives, so we have the impression that others have a better life and are happier. All of this can generate high levels of anxiety. Negative experiences in social networks, low self-esteem, or a limited support network could be some of the factors that would explain these results.
If we look at the different age groups, the effects of social networks seem to be changed. Connecting exclusively through Facebook or using it continuously could create dependency and decrease well-being among the younger ones.
Older people also make frequent use of smartphones. However, no relationship has been found so far between the use of social networks and unwanted solitude in this age group. As Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen says, this may be because people change their temporal perspectives as they grow older.
This makes them change their goals and become more experienced in managing their emotions, concentrating more attention on the positive aspects and the quality of social exchanges.
Can social media be useful to reduce unwanted loneliness?
Interventions based on virtual social platforms can be an opportunity to connect and overcome communication barriers. They can also reduce the isolation and unwanted solitude that some individuals suffer. This is the case for the elderly who live alone in their homes and have limited support.
Some studies claim that contact through virtual social networks seems to be not diminishing face-to-face communication, but reinforcing it.
In a recent article, Jennifer Chipps and her research team reviewed the effectiveness of digital technology-based programs to reduce social isolation in older people. Many of these interventions aimed at strengthening pre-existing social ties and increasing opportunities for social exchange.
However, the authors point out that the heterogeneity of the responses and the lack of methodological rigor of some programs do not allow reliable conclusions.
Have we lost the ability to enjoy solitude?
We live in a hyperconnected world, and constant connectivity can slow down our performance. We may think that as we approach the lives of others, we run the risk of moving away from ourselves.
Being alone does not necessarily imply a negative feeling and can sometimes be necessary or beneficial. The desired solitude stimulates our ability to know ourselves, reflect on our way of thinking, feeling, and acting. Creativity also emerges through the loneliness desired. It is, in short, an engine for personal growth.
In the last decade, there has been an increase in the time that adolescents spend using screens in the United States. The use of these devices decreased the time previously occupied by other activities, such as reading, participation in religious activities, and even sleep.
Activities that could facilitate to a greater extent to have a space to reflect, dedicate time to oneself, and enjoy the solitude.
But more research is still needed to find out how social networks are a barrier to seizing the loneliness desired, who are the people most affected by this phenomenon and what we can do to find time to meet. It seems that controlling our connectivity and power, and being able to disconnect at certain times can be a powerful strategy to benefit from precise doses of loneliness.
Excessive or inappropriate use of social networks is related to unwanted solitude, but it is not the leading cause of this.
Other aspects, such as individualism, the anonymity of big cities, or the tendency to live in single-person homes, can contribute to greater unwanted solitude.
Digital platforms can serve as practical tools for constructive social exchange, but they can also make it harder to find times to really be alone. Limiting time to use and prioritizing face-to-face interaction with the virtual connection can lead to a significant improvement in well-being.