Chicago, Social Media and Isolation: Are You Doing This?

social media chicago

Social Media and Isolation in CChicago

By: Alex DeWoskin, LCSW

Social media is one of the greatest inventions in history. People in Chicago certainly seem to dig it. It has connected people like never before. It has changed the way that people do business, with companies maintaining their own social media accounts to interact in real time with customers and business partners. We can connect with our friends and loved ones and share what’s going on in our lives. We can instantly see what is going on in our communities and around the world.

We can quickly learn about social issues and even organize protests and revolutions. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment.  Apps generate small habitual behaviors, like swiping right or liking a post, that generate ephemeral dopamine bursts. Any second that you’re feeling bored, lonely or anxious, you can get that burst.

Related: Chicago college students: Is social media adding stress to  your life?

However, over the past generation there seems to have been a decline in the number of high-quality friendships. All of this has left people wondering if technology is making us lonelier. Instead of going over to the neighbor’s house, are we sitting at home surfing everybody else’s lives on Facebook? Are we diminishing the scope of intimate interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact?

Over the past decade, the best research has suggested that no, technology and social media are not making us lonelier. These things are tools. It’s what you bring to social media and how you use it that matters. Socially engaged people use it to further engage; lonely people use it to mask loneliness. According to studies, we check our phones on average 221 times a day — about every 4.3 minutes. A decade ago almost no one had a smartphone. Now the average American spends five and half hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time.

We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Despite the social connectivity that social media provides, some people can still feel socially isolated. Many of us suffer from feelings of alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. The more connected we become, the lonelier we are.

Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Loneliness is not a matter of external conditions; it is a psychological state.  The time we spend socializing online not only discourages face-to-face communication, but it also undermines our confidence at engaging in real conversations with real people about the real problems and issues that thread through our lives. Indeed, social networking provides a means of escape.

But when we log off we are confronted with the reality of our lives. Time is our most valuable commodity in life, and the more of it we spend on our online activities, the less we have for each other. Loneliness and social isolation can play a major role in making us sick and even increase the risk of heart disease, increased risk of coronary heart disease, and increased risk of stroke. Loneliness is also associated with high stress and blood pressure, and even been shown to affect people’s DNA, causing gene expression in immune cells associated with increased inflammation.  Not to mention the psychological risks of depression and anxiety.

There is some surprising research out there that shows how social networking is causing specific increases in depression and loneliness in teenagers. One of the biggest reasons why is because they are not learning real social skills like how to make and maintain friendships which often times is most successful by hanging out in person. The lack of real personal interaction with these friends is leading to feelings of isolation.  In addition, the ability to reply to messages, texts, and other forms of online communication and to instantly communicate and talk back is leading to teens to know pretty quickly when they are being ignored.

Related: Depression and Chicago

We all can feel insulted, lonely, depressed and even anxious when we realize we are being given essentially the “silent treatment” by a so-called friend online. There are many websites devoted to feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation. These social media platforms tend to push teens into only interacting with like-minded people. The interactions of only like-minded people can significantly impact feeling lonely and isolated because teens are not engaging with different viewpoints or different thoughts or feelings.

Teens often times feel they are inadequate just through normal real-life interactions, and social networks amplify those feelings and thoughts. Instead of feeling like teens can connect with one another online through social networks, they feel like they cannot measure up to the positive and happy life someone else portrays online.

Social comparison is a problem we all share with social media which creates feelings of envy, loneliness, and depression. When people post only happy and positive things in life, we often feel we are not as perfect as someone else online or our family is not as relevant or cool. This constant barrage of good news causes a vicious cycle in which people post the great things that are happening, which causes their friends to only share the good things that happen in order to keep up.

This kills any sense of vulnerability, of genuine shared experiences that are so crucial to emotional closeness between friends. This kind of posturing often leads to anxiety over the need to be on the “cutting edge” for fear of becoming irrelevant.  And finally, social media provides a sense of false courage to say things online we would never have the guts to say in person.  This can often lead to the problems we see with bullying of all people.

Though technology has changed the tools we have to reach out to others, it has not changed our deep psychological need to truly connect with others. Social media can help us satisfy a portion of this need. We let others know what we are doing and hear about their activities. However, this doesn’t fulfill our deepest and most basic need to establish an emotional connection with another person. At its most fundamental level, this connection is not about reading or sending updates of activities. Human beings have a need to belong, to feel an integral part of something greater than themselves: a cause, project, or living entity that outlives and transcends their own lives.

People need to feel truly connected to others via:  a) a frame of reference or ‘world-view’ such as provided by religion or ideology; b) rootedness or a sense of being part of something c) unity or a sense of oneness with at least part of the world; d) effectiveness or a sense of having an impact on the world for example finding meaningfulness in work satisfaction; e) excitation or a relief from boredom and depression found through active involvement with others.  We need a psychological sense of community, true emotional and social support, and boundaries and trust with others to feel safe both emotionally and physically.

We need a sense of belonging, fulfillment of needs, shared emotional connection and support, social awareness, and social skills. Truly meaningful connection demands a degree of vulnerability — true friends whom we can be ourselves with, rather than our carefully scripted online persona — soul mates who enjoy each other’s presence so much.  Nothing can ever replace good old fashioned in-person conversations, where we cannot hide behind our screens and devices, in building truly meaningful rewarding and sustaining genuine (and often less than perfect) relationships.

Facebook, Twitter, and the like do NOT make us lonely. We make ourselves lonely. Likewise, you get to decide how you’ll use your devices, not the other way around. As technology reshapes our lives, we must rethink what we must do to create and maintain the rewarding relationships we want. We cannot become dependent on our online network to do things it simply cannot do — which includes replacing the human element in any relationship. Only when we consciously decide to turn off our devices and, embracing our fear of rejection or discomfort, tune in to the people around us, can we create the imperfect but deeply satisfying relationships we all crave and need to feel whole.

While social media can be a powerful tool for creating connections, it can also create an illusion of connectedness. There is more to friendship than just collecting lists of people and likes. True social connectedness involves having deep relationships where we make ourselves vulnerable to our friends who in return make themselves vulnerable to us. Friendship is a two-way street where both need to be honest with each other and give feedback, not just interact superficially and put on a façade.

Communication works best when people communicate in person because social cues are an important part of connecting. Body language, eye contact, and tone of voice all provide information that helps us relate to one another. Unfortunately, often times, these are lost in the world of texting and social media where we can show people only what we want them to see and where context is almost entirely missing.

You don’t have to give up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and texting to solve the loneliness problem. Instead, you can use these tools to enhance social connectedness.  Use your smartphone to enhance your in-person relationships rather than replace them.  For example, stop liking your friend’s posts, and comment on them instead. This makes your friend feel better and enhances your bond. Instead of texting, try a phone call. Use your devices to find time to meet up face-to-face.

Research suggests that people who have regular face-to-face interactions were less likely to be depressed. Organize an outing with your friends to go have coffee or dinner on a regular basis. Even if the weather is frigid in our windy city of Chicago, you can still organize something simple. Coffee at Starbucks or a low cost meal at a local eatery are examples.

Don’t keep your phone on the table when you do, though because the quality of conversations is reduced when a device is visible. The Internet can be a great tool to make new friends too. You can use the web to find groups of people that share your hobbies or other interests and arrange meet ups.

If you have a hobby, join a hobby group. If you love art, register for a course at your local art museum. There are even online groups that offer a way to interact with others without the constraint of only being able to interact on a specific day and time. Only don’t confuse web interactions with real life.  Use social media wisely and productively and don’t let it control you.