Loneliness: Social Media, the Internet, and Smartphones
Loneliness is an epidemic, and also part of our common humanity
Posted Feb 11, 2019
If you have the seed of loneliness, the seed of dissatisfaction, there are many clouds ready to drench your seed with rain, and make it grow. Dating apps, email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WeChat, Weibo – we carry our despairing seed to these in our open palms, looking for satisfaction, entertainment, belonging, connection – let’s call it love – to make our seed go away. We may find distraction for a while, but invariably, the rains water our seed, and the brutal sunshine of awareness that we are alone at our screens not getting what we truly need makes our seed sprout and grow. It grows into a great tree of anguish and agony, its leaves ready to catch the breeze of all our daily reminders of how we are not perfectly loved and cared for, in this world of infinite communication, and infinite radio-silences, numbing us to our very roots.
Liking, commenting, retweeting turns passive into active, small reminders of communal connection. But these little acts are pebbles thrown in the great ocean between us, pebbles thrown from our languishing, lonely island. When I write a blogpost, or post something to social media, or even just sit in meditation sometimes, thinking of someone I miss, someone who’s ghosted me, more or less, or otherwise drifted away, I feel like a small island calling to a far-away continent, hoping to move it close, to join me. I’m “it,” trying to tag the world, change this game to blob-tag, where we are all eventually joined. Usually, I sit waiting for that one soothing touch that would forever anneal me to the whole. It never comes. My island remains barren and solitary, in that moment. The tree of agony stirs and rustles, restless in the lonely wind.
Whatever seed we water, grows. We can remind ourselves of all the connections we actually have, all the ways even the most isolated of us is connected to air, earth, stream; other living beings; anonymous others who in their small, sometimes distant ways, make this world habitable, and welcome. Perhaps our awareness of how we water our seeds of loneliness or belonging can grow, and we can make better choices of attention and action, choices that bring us to greater depth, happiness and fulfillment.
Social media scratches at our inescapable itch for connection, validation or escape from boredom or loneliness, but I don’t think it can truly help us belong. Researchers point to the 30% spike in loneliness, depression, anxiety and suicidality amongst 15-19 year olds after the smartphone became ubiquitous in 2010. Social media and smartphones are not all bad – but they are both good and bad. We have to know ourselves well, and discover how they work and don’t work for us. Where do we go when we go on social media? Why are we scrolling, checking, looking, in this moment? What are we looking for, or trying to escape? (Take my Social Media Mindfulness Detox Challenge and discover for yourself.)
As I wrote in Facebuddha, “significant research indicates that those who are distressed tend to be dissatisfied with the responses they receive on Facebook (Bazarova et al, 2017). Those with low self-esteem seek reassurance online, but often end up feeling that they don’t belong and are a burden.” (Clerkin et al, 2013). Also,
“The rich get richer on Facebook. Those who have secure attachment styles tend to get more social bonding and social capital online. The avoidantly attached do not benefit – the poor get poorer. Some poor do benefit – those who are anxiously or ambivalently attached do get some benefit from spending time online, though as mentioned, this time seems to come at a cost in school and social activities.” (Quote from Facebuddha, citing research by Lin, 2015)
As infants, our lives depend on being loved. We never really outgrow that basal need. But when we don’t get it, we might turn against ourselves or against the world, in what I describe as a rejection complex in my book. We might feel anger, frustration, or inadequacy. We might blame ourselves, thinking that there is something inherently wrong with us, that we are defective. We might even think not that we make mistakes (as do all humans), but that we are a mistake. These are the core beliefs of shame. We believe we are unlovable.
Indeed, we keep looking to our online experience, I think, to dispel deep, submerged feelings of shame, inadequacy, and insufficiency, with hoped-for popularity and inclusion. For most of us, social media can cast a fleeting, almost romantic spell which lures us to the addiction of checking our newsfeed, our group chats, our favorite groups, multiple times a day. Social media is like that mysterious, attractive crush who keeps leading us on, only to shrug us away and turn their backs the next moment. “What is the sound of one heart crushing?” a Zen master might ask. It’s the sound of your own heart, lonely and disconsolate, each beat a tiny shipwreck off the shores of the great continent of hope.
Recognizing that you bear a common human burden, and being tender and kind to yourself for being a human, ultimately alone in your skin, is the beginning of wisdom. Even in the closest relationship, there is often loneliness. Perhaps Hafiz said it best, in the poem pictured below. Here’s hoping we all live with the full moon in each eye.
Happy Valentine’s Day, to everyone, but especially all the lonely, broken hearts of the world. (As another remedy for painful feelings, you can try the ‘Soften, Soothe, Allow' guided meditations from the Mindful Self Compassion workshops pioneered by Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.)
(c) 2019 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
Bazarova NN, Choi YH, Whitlock J, Cosley D, Sosik V. 2017. Psychological distress and emotional expression on Facebook. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 20(3): 157-163
Clerkin EM, Smith AR, Hames JL. 2013. The interpersonal effects of Facebook reassurance seeking. J Affect Disord. Nov; 151(2): 525-30
Lin JH. The role of attachment style in Facebook use and social capital: evidence from university students and a national sample. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2015 Mar; 18(3): 173-180