Written by Amara Hartman.
Part 1 of 2. Read part 2 here.
There are more ways than ever to connect with each other. It’s hard to imagine an era when people awaited the arrival of their correspondence strapped in saddle bags. Longhand letter writing is a charm of a bygone time, and any small sect of people who still try to keep it alive appreciate it for its purity. There aren’t any of the trappings of modern communication. No visible friend counts, gifs, or emojis. Nothing flashy driving the want to stay in touch except suspense and imagination. Even email’s been leveled to one-liners or co-opted by instant messengers like G-chat and Skype. Blogs are popularized by purveyors of trends who want to teach you a lifestyle: how to wrap an infinity scarf or create a refreshing grapefruit spritzer.
And in the middle of it all stands the behemoth social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat have all morphed from handy tools to actual propellants of our culture. Tweets are regularly featured in the news. Emojis stand in for text within text. We get what the peach and eggplant mean–a far cry from actually having to woo someone into liking you in the first place, much less into your pants.
With this insane glut, like Augustus Gloop stuffing chocolate in his face, one of the last things anyone would describe an average American as is lonely. It’s a natural conclusion that the more interactions you have, the less you’re alone. In a society of likes, followers, and subscribers, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling stranded in a hollow abyss of loneliness.
“Loneliness is a different experience than solitude. Solitude is being alone by choice […] Loneliness means there is a discomfort.” – Psychology Today
But in a 2016 study of more than 2,000 Americans by the Harris Poll, 72% of us experience loneliness. And not just every now and then. It wasn’t uncommon for respondents to say they were lonely at least once a week. Wikipedia describes, “…loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in marriages, relationships, families, veterans, and those with successful careers […] Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people.”
It’s this complexity in loneliness that differentiates it from isolation. Psychology Today writes, “Loneliness is a different experience than solitude. Solitude is being alone by choice and wanting that aloneness or being comfortable with it. Loneliness means there is a discomfort.” In lonely isolation, you may have not necessarily chosen it, and so the quality of the feeling is more akin to neglect soaking in through the cracks. A lack of attention or unfulfilled need sits dank below the surface. Solitude can be actively chosen. It’s an intentional exclusion from a circumstance or group of people for your own peace of mind. Some people seek more solitude than others and can enter or exit depending on their emotional and psychological needs.
Loneliness is not unique to one group of people, though some are more prone to it at different life stages. Data gathered by the Pew Research Center (January 2017) shows the largest percentage of users are within the 18-29 year old bracket. Users aged 30-49 make up 79%. All the popular social media platforms are charted, but 76% specifically use Facebook every day. “As more Americans have adopted social media, the social media user base has also grown more representative of the broader population. Young adults were among the earliest social media adopters and continue to use these sites at high levels, but usage by older adults has increased in recent years.”
The pressure young adults (and many beyond young adulthood) face to achieve whatever social marker dangles in front of them is persistent. Scrolling through a stream of happy baby, adorable home, and fun new partner pictures can take its toll if you’re not balancing it out by logging off. Reactions to posts only encourage an ouroboros of “success and fun equals likes and connection equals success and fun.”
“Loneliness is ‘an invisible epidemic’ masked by people’s online personas, which rarely reflect real emotions.” – Dr. Jennifer Caudle
Brian Primack, a professor from the Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said, “You might watch all these interactions where it seems like everyone else is connecting […] That could lead to feeling excluded…” But beyond the unending playground hierarchy of feeling left out in life, loneliness can also be exacerbated by a number of health problems including mental health and substance abuse. Primack also told BBC, “This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults […] We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together.” Social media can often turn in on itself and spotlight a lack of connection instead of more. Dr. Jennifer Caudle, an assistant professor of family medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, adds in an interview with CBS news, “Loneliness is ‘an invisible epidemic’ masked by people’s online personas, which rarely reflect real emotions.”
While the research into connections between social media and loneliness isn’t groundbreaking at this point, for some reason, loneliness is still embarrassing to admit. With it comes a sense of being the outsider or unwanted, something we’ve been primed to avoid since first ushered into daycare and told to “play nice.” Being the last one picked still stings, and even as we age, we might entertain the fleeting question: “Is everyone hanging out without me?” Psychology Today writes, “There seems to be a strong stigma about loneliness. Many people will admit to being depressed before they’ll talk about being lonely. They fear being judged as unlikeable, a loser, or weird so they don’t discuss their sense of aloneness, alienation, or exclusion.”
The digital age isn’t dying; it’s more pervasive as time goes on. Advances in tech and media are valuable, but also pose the challenge of maintaining sincerity in humanity–a vital thread often taken for granted, yet without that entwined richness, we are left starving. Next week, we’ll talk to someone who did choose letter writing as a way of enlarging her global perspective and making more genuine connections where our fast-paced society has failed.