Lonely Planet

In using social media as an escape or as a substitute for real human connections,
there are chances of augmented “social and emotional loneliness.”

By Sumera Khalil | September 2020

Have you ever experienced a wave of utter loneliness as soon as you sign off after scrolling through your Facebook account with more than 500 friends or your Instagram and Twitter accounts with more than 1000 followers? Well… 99.9 percent chances are that your answer is “YES”! This is a strange phenomenon, considering that the world has been converted into a digital room with so many social media sites where anyone can engage in conversation with anyone, no matter wherever in the world they are and whatever time it is on their side of globe. A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania revealed that the younger people who are very actively engaged on social media are three times more prone to feeling socially isolated.

Loneliness, a word unknown to humanity and the English language till the 1800s, instantly became a favourite when Wordsworth used it to describe loneliness of nature, lonely road, lonely trees and even a lonely cloud (The Daffodils). The loneliness of those times, however, was different from today’s concept of loneliness, where the more you connect to the larger world, the more lonely you feel. According to Fay Bound Alberti, a historian at the University of York, for people in the 1800s, loneliness was a source of catharsis. It was a solitary walk in the woods or a hike across a mountain. Gradually, with the advent of technology, this loneliness became involuntary, secluded and crippling; you could connect to the whole world yet be alone and trapped in your own four walls. There is medical research and studies that link this social loneliness to cardiac diseases, anxiety, suicide, early mortality and an increased loss of social and healthcare costs.

The question, however, arises that how does this entire cataclysm about loneliness as a plague relate to social media? The answer to this baffling question would be that with the rapid increase in options to connect digitally, physical connection is diminishing. Face-to-face contact in the world is abating, giving way to communication fueled by technology. Social media is a new way of developing relationships, so much so that you wish happy birthday to the person sitting next to you on Facebook instead of greeting him in person because that is more liked and social now. Robert Weiss, a psychologist, distinguishes between “social loneliness” and “emotional loneliness” which persists irrespective of how many “connections” you have on your social media apps. With little or no connection physically, these virtual connections do not assuage emotional loneliness.

It is overwhelming that in a survey by an American insurance company, Cigna Health, involving around 20,000 Americans, it was found that loneliness is deeply rooted in 46% of social media users. Odds of loneliness are the root cause of mental illness and social disconnection. Being in public places, waiting for a friend or for food at a restaurant and using Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to avoid awkward eye-contact or simply gazing around, can add digital communion to one’s life. Conversely, in using social media as an escape or as a substitute for real human connection, there are chances of augmented “social and emotional loneliness”. It has become the new “normal” for recluses to open social media apps to feel disconnected from the real world and be remotely connected which dissipates when they sign off.

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The writer is a visiting lecturer at the Government College University, Lahore and can be reached at sumerakhalil21

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