Human loneliness in Western cultures has been a topic of concern long before the advent of the personal device or social networking.  Philip Slater, for example, penned an important analysis in the last century before the introduction of the now ubiquitous personal computer or handheld device.[1]  Moreover, poets centuries ago also considered the causes and effects loneliness and I am not here thinking about the longing for an absent loved one of the romantic poets.  Today I want to consider loneliness from the perspective of the psychologist that I am.

Needless to say, I cannot do so without thinking about  our contemporary communication devices and whether they contribute to or detract from loneliness.  That, in fact, is my question for today’s blog. Does social networking avert or introduce more loneliness?  My answer will be that both are surreptitiously at work in our psyches.

Human beings are tribal animals.  We are designed to be acutely responsive to others of our species.  Developmentally, both vision and touch are crucial, along with a secure sense of being held and loved.  These are perhaps the sine qua non for healthy development, but not everyone in or outside psychology understands that development occurs all through life and these basic needs remain. None of them is fully satisfied by social networking, but they can be satisfied partially enough create an endless hunger looking much like addiction.

In contemporary culture and as adults, we a learn to satisfy these needs symbolically and that is the function of language and of fantasy/imagination/creativity, which develop later in early to later childhood.  It is one of the functions of vision. Abstraction does not, however, replace the touch or real eye contact, but ideally should add to the richness of human experience. 

If we depend on the symbolic or on pixels to replace the physical to too much of a degree, we begin to experience loneliness.  Each of us needs the act of touch, just as we need to look into someone else’s eyes and see ourselves reflected there with love and respect. 

I myself learned so much about my own need for eye contact when I worked with the blind. [2] The exchange of feelings through the eyes of the sighted was as essential to me as touch and perhaps even more so than the effect of language and the skills that we develop to abstract and imagine this visual and sensory touch.

Do our personal telephones and screens support or replace these needs?  They can be used both ways, but no user should deceive themselves that this sort of contact is a replacement.  In the end, pixels leave us untouched.

Nor should anyone deceive themselves that they are multi-tasking at the same time with real people in their environment. In fact, brain science is demonstrating that there is actually no such thing as multi-tasking.  You are simply doing half of each task, your attention is never on both, but is vacillating between them.[3] You are missing eye contact and touch when you are responding to pixels.

No matter what kinds of contact and accompaniment contemporary devices offer, they do not solve the more basic needs.  They are more like eating a hearty helping of cotton candy rather than a satisfying meal when seriously hungry. Imagine yourself stranded without food on a desert island for a week when the rescue party arrives with a generous supply of cotton candy and no other food. That is, internet contact can be an appetizer or a dessert for actual physical presence, but they are not a replacement for a satisfying meal or a warm embrace.  In fact, the more any user tries to make them a replacement, the more addictive they become and the more we depend on them, starving ourselves of our real needs for contact. The result: constant contact, busyness and “multi-tasking,” but still loneliness, the scourge of our age and of human non-tribal life.

References

[1] Slater, Philip (1990) The Pursuit of Loneliness, Beacon Press.

[2] Kaschak, Ellyn (2015), Sight Unseen: Gender and Racethrough Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press, New York.[3] MacKinnon, Matthew, 2016, The Myth of Multitasking, Psychology Today.

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