Sydney Engelberg PhD

The Practical Professor


The Loneliness of Social Media, Part Two

To understand social media loneliness we need to understand our social selves

Posted Jul 24, 2015

A few weeks ago, a photograph of me holding a baby while lecturing, went viral. The frenzy included mainstream and social media such as the Washington Post, Time, CNN and Buzzfeed.

​ / Via Sarit Fishbaine
Source: ​ / Via Sarit Fishbaine

In my first post, I looked at why I believed this took place and the background to understanding why my photo triggered the frenzy it did. In a nutshell, despite my wife's comment to Yahoo that "… (W)e just find it all very funny. I think it must have happened on a no-news day,” the flood of responses reflected for me a profound sense of loneliness.

This post, Part Two, will explore what the frenzy says about life in today’s social media age. Years of research taught us that there are 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, what do we know about them and how are they impacted by the digital age we live in?

The Psychological Sense of Community

I like to start with the psychological sense of community. Why, because no matter what, we are “social animals.”

McMillan & Chavis suggest four factors that contribute to a sense of community.

They are, firstly:

1. Membership, that feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness which includes:

Boundaries – How people become members and what the boundaries are keeping others out,
Emotional safety – The trust and feeling of safety created by boundaries and inclusion of the right people,
A sense of belonging and identification – Feeling that you fit in and that this is “your community”
Personal investment – Enhancing your sense of community by contributing to the community, and
A common symbol system – Sharing symbols like a sports team jersey or gang colors that reinforce your sense of community

2. Influence. The second factor is influence, or a sense of mattering. It needs to work both ways, with you feeling that you have influence over the community and the community having influence on you. And for a community to have influence on you, it simply has to become a place that you care about. It has to provide you with value that you don’t want to lose.

3. Integration and Fulfillment of Needs. This, our third factor, simply means that by joining a community you get what you hoped to get by joining. You need to feel rewarded in some way for your participation in the community in order to continue to contribute.

4. Shared Emotional Connection. This, our last factor, has to do with all healthy communities having a story. Members share a history of experiences together and the belief that there will be more experiences together in the future.

These experiences form a long lasting, emotional connection. That’s why a community that goes through a crisis often comes out much stronger, because they’ve now shared a difficult situation, forging a strong emotional bond amongst themselves.

Emotional and Social Support

Our second component of life necessary to overcome loneliness is emotional and social support. Research has identified four types of emotional and social support: 

Emotional Support: Providing and receiving care, love, trust and empathy as well as respect and admiration.​ We can see the connection to Attachment Theory—that people are the happiest and most effective when that they have one or more trusted persons they can confide in.

Instrumental Support: ​Providing and receiving tangible goods and services, such as money, groceries, completing work that was assigned to someone else, allowing use of one’s car and so on.

Informational Support: Providing and receiving information or advice in a time of need, especially in problem solving situations.​ The richest source of this form of support is often from professionals e.g., Health Professionals, Lawyers, Accountants, etc. But let’s not forget this kind of support provided by friends and family.

Appraisal Support: ​ Communication of key information and feedback crucial for self-evaluation.

Emotional and Social Intelligence

Finally, our third necessary component. So much has been written about emotional and social intelligence. Nonetheless, many people are still confused about what they really mean. The best way of understanding them is to think of a five rung ladder. The higher you ascend on the ladder the more you can see and understand. You cannot, however, skip a rung. You need to master each rung before you can ascend to the next. And what are these rungs? They are, in ascending order:

Self-Awareness, i.e. recognizing one's emotions and their effect, knowing one's strengths and limits and having a strong sense of one's self-worth and capabilities.

Self-Regulation, i.e. keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check, maintaining standards of honesty and integrity, taking responsibility for one’s actions, flexibility in handling change and being comfortable with novel ideas, approaches and new information.

Motivation, i.e. striving to improve or meet a standard of excellence, readiness to act on opportunities and persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks.

Social Awareness, i.e. sensing others' feelings and perspectives and taking an active interest in their concerns, sensing others development needs and bolstering their abilities, cultivating opportunities through different kinds of people and reading a group's emotional currents and power relationships

Social Skills, i.e. using effective persuasion tactics, listening openly and conveying convincing messages, negotiating and resolving disagreements, inspiring and guiding individuals and groups, initiating or managing change, working with others toward shared goals and creating group synergy in pursuing collective goals.

Wow, that's quite a list! To find all or even a significant part of all of these life components on social media seems to be rather a tall order. No wonder more and more people feel like Mark who commented on Part One of this blog, “I find the whole dynamic of Facebook sad. A photo goes up, people comment glowingly on it and then you "like" the comment. It’s just unending narcissistic supply. Most of the friends are not friends at all, they are barely acquaintances. I deleted my FB account a while back and now realise that 90% of the content was drivel, including mine. It's a false connectedness.”

So is all lost? Do we simply slide into depression or disconnect from all social media? Post Three in the series will look at solutions; what we can do to overcome loneliness and create meaningful relationships, including in this digital age.