Technology and Loneliness

Nobody likes being lonely. Humans are social creatures and community is essential—people need each other. Today, with advanced technology and extensive social networking, connecting with others is that much faster, easier and dependable.

Yet, according to the National Science Foundation’s General Social Survey, “unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely.” Duke University researchers revealed in a study published in the American Sociological review in 2006 that “the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss matters [of personal importance] more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent” between 1985 and 2004, while “the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.”

So, if technology has seemingly allowed people to create huge communities of “friends” for themselves, why are they still so lonely? Could technology promoting social media possibly be the problem? As it turns out, it just might be.

Technology has revolutionized how people relate to each other and self-reflect. According to TedX speaker and MIT Social Studies Professor Sherry Turkle, technology has created “a new way of being alone together.” Although people are sending text messages of “I completely understand—I’m here for you!” and typing out their empathy to online friends, at the same time, individuals are remaining within their own virtual bubbles, ironically being isolated while still linked online.

The modern, western world presents people with a self-conflicting ideal that both celebrates individuality and also discourages people from being too different, since differences can lead to separation, isolation and eventually loneliness. To avoid being lonely, people use social networks and technology to increase their number of “friends.” However, though one may have several hundreds of Facebook friends or Instagram followers, the maximum number of people a person is capable of intimately knowing is only around 150 members, according to the video The Innovation of Loneliness (Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, 2013) designed by Shimi Cohen. It turns out that many of these virtual friends are not “real friends” at all. To create a stable relationship, a person must be willing to go out of his way to have in-person conversations, which involve eye contact, voice intonation and other physical senses that online interactions take away. However, technology offers the ease of texting silently from separate rooms and replaces the effort, time and deep care put into active relationships. People end up sacrificing true connections for a paradoxical self-actualization ideal by focusing on quantity rather than quality. They give up conversation and intimacy for mere connection.

Though striving for individuality, people simultaneously submit their identities to the power of technology. Humans love control—over where attention is put and over one’s perceived personality— and technology allows people to customize their lives. As shown by photoshopped photos, tweaked posts and long-planned texts, people get to edit, delete and retouch their presented selves and control what parts of them people see online while also avoiding real-time interactions that make them feel vulnerable.

“You can end up hiding from each other, even as we’re all constantly connected to each other,” Turkle said.

People love being around others but are afraid of intimacy. “Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable … [because it gives] us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” Cohen said.

People convince themselves that they can comfortably control their relationships with their devices and keep all the perks of real friendships when in fact, neither is true. To avoid becoming vulnerable through close interaction, people end up hiding behind illuminated screens.

People all want to be heard, and listening is a fundamental part of any healthy relationship. However, text messages and chats have increasingly replaced in-person or even phone conversations when ranting to friends about struggles or thoughts. The audience provided by technology, such as Twitter or Tumblr followers, gives people comfort in a dependable, automatic group of listeners. Because of this, people turn to technology for consolation and to feel cared for and important, but this artificial connection is “more like a symptom than a cure” for the underlying disease of loneliness, according to The Innovation of Loneliness.

In searching for their identities, people often turn to technology to create a “self.” By using instant messaging, posts and statuses, a person can share his thoughts immediately as he has them. These shared thoughts then shape and define who the person is. Turkle summarizes this phenomenon as “I share therefore I am.” Rather than a strong identity shaping what is shared, the shared thoughts become the building blocks of a technology-based identity. To feel alive, people fake virtual experiences and emotions. To have a sense of community, they connect more and more. All the while, they become increasingly isolated.

Sometimes being alone can be beneficial; when people are alone, they can reflect on their relationships, circumstances, thoughts and actions most honestly. However, the issue presented here is not about being alone; rather, the problems people face today are their inability to stand on their own without feeling lonely and their overdependence on technology to avoid loneliness.

People have developed the false belief that always being connected will make them feel less alone. They’ve put technology on a pedestal and made it The One and Only Solution. But as Cohen sums up nicely in The Innovation of Loneliness, “If we’re not able to be alone, we’re only going to know how to be lonely.”