Social media and online platforms have been a saving grace in these isolating times. During the challenges of COVID-19, social media usage has surged with a 61% increase worldwide, according to a study of 25,000 consumers across 30 markets. Live video usage has doubled on Facebook and Instagram. WhatsApp has seen a 40% increase in usage. Twitter has 23% more daily users than last year. TikTok reported a 27% increase during the month of March alone.
Our technology has given us an imperfect but vital substitute for human connection. Gallup/Knight recently reported , "Seventy-four percent of Americans who use social media say it has been 'very' or 'moderately' important to them personally as a way to stay connected with people who are close to them that they may not be able to see in person during the coronavirus situation."
Innovations abound. Instagram has introduced a new feature that lets friends view posts together over video chat. Let’s Be Authentic has sprung up as a Philadelphia-based group that gathers members for weekly video chats. Students at Cornell built the platform Quarantine Buddy to match people’s interests for virtual conversations, pulling in 8,000 people from 64 countries.
Thanks to our technical proactivity to stave off isolation, our social life is now a screen life, even a split-screen life on Zoom. We switch our onscreen commitments on and off to get the job done—socially speaking—though many complain the onscreen world is downright draining.
But what haunts me is our collective dependency on social media to feel that we belong somewhere in this brave new normal. During forced isolation, people who live alone ( 28% in the US ), or those grieving the loss of their livelihood, or worse, grieving the loss of a loved one, may feel particularly vulnerable to what others say about them online. Our belief in our likeability may be more fragile, not only because we are isolated, but also because so many of us have lost what gave us a sense of security. Is there more at stake (including our reputations) when we post on social media these days? And with these higher stakes, do we feel more vulnerable?
According to a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine , the stakes couldn’t be higher. The isolation of the pandemic has significantly increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Domestic violence, substance use, firearm sales, and suicides have all increased over a two-month span.
The Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School advised, “A substantial proportion of persons exposed to a natural disaster will have psychological distress and develop mental health disorders. The likelihood of adverse mental health outcomes is augmented in the setting of economic stress. Unemployment alone is likely responsible for thousands of suicides."
More of us report feeling lonely during the pandemic. And with that loneliness comes a greater need to try out new online communities and instantly receive positive reactions. Most users of social media understand very well how the “likes” we garnish guide our decisions, determine our values, and even gauge our sense of right and wrong as we bravely join groups, meetings, events, or post comments. But, if we can't get enough “likes,” followers, or supportive comments, we might quickly give up trying to engage with groups and withdraw to more isolated and passive online amusement.
Many of us are doing our best not to fall into a pit of loneliness when someone unfriends us or responds with a zinger of vitriol to our thoughtful post. It even feels lonely when we self-consciously pop into video chats, Facebook events, and watch parties that can stifle our spontaneous banter and unabashed laughter. Our online socializing gets the job done, but we miss the magic of happenstance in our gatherings. We are trying so hard not to miss out while missing one another terribly. But I worry that the collective grief, vulnerability, and loneliness of this pandemic is not only magnifying our loneliness but making us more sensitive to social media.
For the online classes I teach about building friendships and community, I’ve created the following self-assessment to examine our sensitivity to social media. I use the assessment as a reflection exercise to facilitate discussions about what triggers loneliness and a sense of not belonging. I would like to share the test here.
A Self-Test: How Sensitive Are You to Social Media?
For this self-assessment of 10 questions, we examine our feelings about social media. Most of us appreciate how social media can help us locate ways to get connected when we are building new support networks, but we also know the downside: It might make us feel bad about ourselves—and even worse when we’re already lonely and isolated.
Which answer best reflects your first thought or impression?
1. I admit that getting “likes” on social media makes me feel better. And if I don’t get any responses at all, I worry.
- a. Yes, that’s often true for me.
- b. It depends on my mood. On some days, people’s responses affect me.
- c. I could take it or leave it. It’s nice to get the “likes,” but it doesn’t get me down if I don’t get them.
- d. I could care less. I hardly notice the responses.
- e. I post interesting or helpful articles that I want to share, regardless of how people react.
2. Social media makes people fake. You name it—friends, coworkers, family members—everyone only shows the bright side of their lives. If you want “likes,” you’ve got to fake how well you are doing.
- a. I completely agree.
- b. I mostly agree. If people speak out honestly, they need to be very careful not to send the wrong message.
- c. You can be honest, but in a positive way—in other words, tell the truth, but don’t bring people down with depressing personal issues.
- d. Most of the time, you can be honest, just be respectful and polite.
- e. You can always be honest, just be respectful and polite.
3. Whenever I’ve been unfriended or deleted, it has hurt my feelings.
- a. That’s always true for me, it hurts no matter how close or not I am to that person.
- b. Sometimes—it depends on how well I know the person.
- c. It doesn’t hurt too much, but it makes me ruminate about what I might have said or done.
- d. I don’t take it personally. It’s just part of living with social media. (But it does make me curious about why this person did this.)
- e. It doesn’t affect me at all. I don’t give it much thought.
4. I’ve waited two months during the COVID lockdown to visit a dear friend in person, and I’m jazzed about our visit. We finally sit down at the park and begin to catch up with our news. In 10 minutes, after I’ve started sharing a personal story, she excuses herself to check an Instagram post of a video of her daughter and shows it to me. I’m frustrated. Can’t we at least have an hour of face time without interruptions? Sure, her daughter’s video is great, and she meant well sharing it with me—but darn, that video completely changed the tone of our conversation.
- a. I would feel the same way.
- b. I’m annoyed, but I take a deep breath and try to accept that this is life in digital times. “It is what it is.”
- c. I don’t like it, but I’ve gotten used to my friends and loved ones doing this all the time.
- d. I’m okay with it. I take a moment to enjoy her daughter’s video.
- e. I join in and show her my Instagram photos—like a “show-and-tell.”
5. I’m often envious of what my friends post on Facebook. For example, only one person bothered to send me a birthday wish. But all the time I see dozens of people responding to my friend’s birthdays!
- a. I would feel the same way. Maybe people don’t care that much about me.
- b. I would wonder why I didn’t receive more birthday wishes.
- c. I try not to let it get to me. I’ll send a nice message to the one person who did wish me a happy birthday.
- d. Oh, just screw it. It’s only Facebook.
- e. I have plenty of real friends who hardly use Facebook.
6. I sometimes feel left out or inadequate when I compare myself to others on social media—better family life, taking nice vacations, great jobs, having fun socializing ...
- a. I often feel inadequate.
- b. It sometimes affects me.
- c. I know that people are only selectively sharing their stuff, but still, it gets to me a little.
- d. I don’t feel left out. I always like to see how my friends are doing. I cheer them on with “Likes.”
- e. I really enjoy all the positive energy from their happy photos.
7. I’ve become more assertive about insisting we take a break from our devices, especially at dinner time. If I’m bothering to cook a nice dinner for everyone, then we’d better enjoy being at the table together without interruptions!
- a. I’ve tried, but I’m lucky to get even 20 minutes of face time any given day.
- b. I’ve tried, and I’m lucky to get maybe 40 minutes of face time during the day.
- c. I’ve tried and at least on some days, we can go a whole hour with face time.
- d. I don’t have to try too hard. We’ve found good times to talk.
- e. My household is totally on board with making face time sacred.
8. Due to social media, I believe it’s much more difficult to have deep or meaningful conversations with anyone. I miss having long, heart-to-heart talks about the important things in life. Sometimes I feel lonely not being able to share my deepest thoughts and feelings with others.
- a. Very true for me. I feel sad and discouraged that the world seems so superficial and fast-paced.
- b. Somewhat true for me. I try to find other outlets for my feelings if I can’t talk to anyone about them.
- c. This gets to me sometimes, but I’m an optimist and believe humans are evolving in ways we can’t always understand.
- d. I think the world has always seemed superficial to deep thinkers and “old souls.” We can always find our kindred spirits.
- e. We can live creatively and be open and grateful. Things have a way of working out in the end.
9. I don’t think I fit in with most social media—maybe not even this digital age. I feel like an outsider. I’m more isolated than ever.
- a. True. It’s a lonely world out there. I wish I had real friends.
- b. Sometimes I feel this way. But I have at least a couple of friends who understand.
- c. We must adapt to the digital world or we will be left in the dust.
- d. I believe in compromise and balance. We can spend some time online and other time offline.
- e. I believe we can connect even more deeply and honestly online. We can blog and share all kinds of insights, feelings, dreams, observations. Let’s get creative online!
10. Reflect for a moment: Over the past five years, do you believe social media has made you feel more lonely or less lonely?
- a. Definitely more lonely.
- b. Somewhat more lonely than I’d like.
- c. I feel about the same, not more lonely or less lonely.
- d. Somewhat less lonely.
- e. Definitely less lonely.
If six or more of your answers were Ds or Es, you are likely to be less sensitive to the effects of our digital age and social media. If you answered with six or more As and Bs, social media and our digital culture might be affecting how isolated and lonely you feel. If you have many Cs or were evenly split with your answers, you have mixed feelings and live with ambivalence. It’s helpful to pay attention to our values, beliefs, and feelings about social media so we don’t allow it to dictate whether or not we “fit in” with others.
Hopefully, you’re not allowing social media to define your sense of belonging in the world. It’s important to remember every day that we all belong to far more than our onscreen world. There are fascinating places to belong to—just by stepping under a tree and spotting a cardinal, or giving our animal companions our attention, or listening to gorgeous music that someone wrote long ago in other lonely times. We can nurture our sense of belonging in the world when we simply remember what we are grateful for.
After being unfriended recently on Facebook (God knows why), I found it liberating to reclaim my sense of belonging by decorating beautiful handmade cards and writing gratitude messages to each of my loved ones, friends, colleagues, as well as long-lost cousins and classmates. I told each of them how they had helped me hold onto a true sense of belonging despite COVID-19’s damage to my livelihood that had left me feeling lost. No number of “likes” or followers on Facebook could cheer me up. It felt good to pay it forward by creating little keepsakes of gratitude and to stop checking my apps for a few hours.
I would like to offer five more ways to prevent getting sucked into the negative influences of social media.
When Social Media Has Disappointed or Upset You
- Stay off for a while. Limit your time on social media and keep a healthy balance offline, especially by staying physically active and maintaining self-care routines.
- Read social science research about social media to gain perspective and understanding about how social media affects you. (Interesting websites include Common Sense Media and the Pew Research Center.)
- Spend time in nature (gardening or walking) and/or enjoy the companionship of animals. We need a break from our fellow humans after a nasty encounter on social media or feeling bummed by constant breaking news.
- Talk to someone who can understand your sense of loneliness and despair. Reach out to a trusted friend, support group, or therapist.
- Help others by offering your kindness, support, or talents. Create a list of people to check in with regularly who might be lonelier than you are. Venture into volunteering in your community. (Remote volunteering is possible: Check out Volunteer Match.)
If there is a silver lining in this pandemic, most of us are feeling less ashamed to admit our loneliness to one another. The stigma of being lonely or lacking social support does not carry the same weight it did before COVID-19 forced us into isolation. We now have one universal reason to stop blaming ourselves for feeling lonely because we are all isolated through no fault of our own. All of us are muddling through drastic changes in our lives without an end in sight, but we can find companionship along the way—online, offline, and even in our imaginations and memories.
Note: The self-test was adapted from my book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community .
Copyright © by Val Walker