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Sydney Engelberg PhD
Sydney Engelberg PhD

The Loneliness of Social Media: Part One

How social media fame can reveal the "dark side" of life in our digital age

Some weeks ago you may have received the photo below shared on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or you may have seen it on Yahoo, the Huffington Post or in your local newspaper. The photo shows me lecturing at university while holding my student’s baby. The photo was taken without my being aware and was unknown to me. I had picked up the baby to calm him down and so allow his mother to continue remaining in the lecture. The student who took the photo posted it to a website where it was seen by my daughter who in turn shared and tagged it. From there I have been swept up in a social media frenzy. The photograph of me holding the baby while lecturing went viral.

Sarit Fishbaine/Facebook
Source: Sarit Fishbaine/Facebook

For a time I was even number one on BuzzFeed Trending and Facebook Trending. The frenzy included mainstream media with articles and interviews appearing in the Washington Post, The Guardian and The Independent, as well as on CNN, Canadian television, BBC Radio 5, South African radio, to name but a few. Here are a few examples from the Washington Post, Time, CNN and Buzzfeed.

At first I was both astonished and confused. Why all the fuss? Why all this attention? As a Clinical-Community and Organizational psychologist, however, I tried to make sense of all this by looking for the underlying messages. What I soon saw was that the flood of emails, comments, friendship requests and talkbacks, while almost universally positive, reflected a deep underlying sense of loneliness. To understand this loneliness, I want to talk about why this all took place, what it all means and how we can deal with it. So, this post provides the background to understanding why my photo triggered the frenzy it did. Part Two will explore what the frenzy says about life in today’s social media age. Post Three in the series provides the solutions, what we can do to overcome loneliness and create meaningful relationships.

As we know, human beings have a need to belong, to feel an integral part of something greater than themselves: a cause, project, or living entity that outlives and transcends their own brief life-line. Seymour Sarason, in his seminal work on the psychological sense of community, described it as the feeling that one is part of a readily available, supportive and dependable structure that is part of everyday life. However, the need to belong, while having the potential to create an inclusive sense of community, idealism, and tolerance in some circumstances, seems increasingly to result in frustration and a sense of alienation. This feeling is captured by two of Psychology Today’s bloggers. The blogger Ravi Chandra, M.D. who, after deactivating his Facebook account in February of this year, noted that “As much as I enjoyed aspects of the Facebook experience, including the possibility of social change, I concluded that Facebook was more of a way to be opinionated rather than related.” In another recent blog, The Teen Doctor, while not talking specifically about social media, also emphasized the importance of genuine and truly meaningful relationships when she posted, commenting on the horrific murder of nine by Dylan Roof in Charleston, “So, why do some people have tough childhoods and create a life that is basically good and decent? I'll tell you why. They make good and supportive connections in life and are therefore less vulnerable to falling prey to racism and other such destructive belief systems.”

The existential psychologist Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, explores the theory that the very physiological and psychological developments which underpin man’s humanity have also created the conditions for loneliness. Our very condition of consciousness and self-awareness have ‘evicted (us) from paradise', the paradise of “unreflexive being”, the paradise of the animal world where self-awareness is lacking and, therefore, life is only experienced as here-and-now. Self-awareness creates understanding of our life condition and so produces existential needs for belonging and connection common to all human beings - rooted in the drive to overcome the horror of separateness, of powerlessness, of lostness. To survive, says Fromm, we are forced to find, construct, and invent new forms of relating ourselves to the world and others- to enable us to feel at home in it.

These Fromm identifies as: a) a frame of reference and devotion (i.e. a ‘world-view' such as provided by religion or ideology); b) rootedness (i.e. a sense of being part of something both prior and posterior to one’s life as identifying with a nation or culture provides; c) unity (i.e. a sense of oneness with at least part of the world as belonging to a congregation or community provides; d) effectiveness (i.e. a sense of having an impact on the world, which is why meaningfulness is so important in finding work satisfaction; e) excitation (or a relief from boredom and depression which we can find through active involvement with others, values and inspirational activity such as volunteering).

Just how much this all is missing in people’s lives is captured in a comment on MSN titled,

You are my hero today!

Dear Dr. Engelberg,

I’m a … from Dallas, Texas. I saw your photo holding a baby while teaching your class today. I know you’re getting thousands of emails about this picture, so I’m going to keep my email short. Please just let me say that with our continuing loss of civility in the U.S.A and people forcefully imposing their religion on other people around the world, your picture has restored my faith in humanity. We need more men like you in this world, sir. Keep up the good work.


Michael ….

Dallas, Texas”

What can we learn from all this? That’s what I intend to explore in Part Two of this series. Part Two will look at the three components of life that are necessary for overcoming loneliness. They are a psychological sense of community, true emotional and social support and emotional and social intelligence. What are they and what do we know about them? More in Part Two.

About the Author
Sydney Engelberg PhD

Sydney Engelberg, Ph.D., who has worked on four continents, is on the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ono Academic College.

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