The increased use of technology is a sign of social isolation, studies say, but Facebook isn’t necessarily to blame.
A new study by social network Badoo revealed more than one-third of people in the U.S., U.K., and Germany spend more time socializing online than they do in real life, with 35 percent feeling lonely and wishing they had more friends.
Only the Lonely
Robert Putnam wrote the well-received book, “Bowling Alone,” in 2000, before the rise of social networks and multifunctional phones, arguing U.S. social ties were in tatters.
Putnam explained how Americans spend less time socializing with neighbors, joining groups, eating together and doing all sorts of friendly things in favor of solitary pursuits and longer work and commute hours.
Putnam’s depiction of America’s fractured civic state is echoed by the dire pictures painted by Stephen Marche in his Atlantic article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” and The New York Times’ Sherry Turkle’s “The Flight From Conversation.”
The articles blame social networks and mobile technology, respectively, for the demise of good old-fashioned face-to-face contact, and argue our society is worse because of it.
There is no argument that people are online and on their mobile devices now more than ever before. And people often experience abject loneliness. But the two are far less linked than these writers, and the research they use to back up their claims, suggest.
Existing Long Before Facebook
As Putnam’s book lays out, people were already profoundly lonely and less social before the advent of Facebook and iPhones. Feelings of isolation are not a new phenomenon. Putnam targets the rise of the suburbs and driving culture for spreading people apart and diminishing social interactions, and his thesis makes a lot more sense than blaming Facebook, since the problem of social isolation was there long before Mark Zuckerberg coded the site from his dorm room.
A 14-year-old without a car home alone in a subdivision without any peers is still not hanging out with friends if he doesn’t have Facebook — he’ll watch T.V. or, ideally, read a book, neither of which strengthens social ties.
Harvard fellow Zeynep Tufekci articulated this thought well in a rebuttal to Marche’s article, saying, “As a social media researcher and a user, every time I read one of these ‘let’s panic’ articles about social media (and there are many), I want to shout: Look at TV! Look at commutes! Look at suburbs! Look at long work hours!” Tufekci highlights how Facebook is the scapegoat for a much deeper social problem.
A Mixed Bag of Research
University of Pennsylvania researchers refuted the idea that Facebook has created a new sense of loneliness in a 2011 paper, saying, “We find social isolation has not increased since 1985.” The study went on to say, “Mobile phone and Internet use, especially specific uses of social media, were found to have a positive relationship to network size and diversity.” Facebook and phones help people stay in touch — they do not force them towards the margins of society.
For every inflammatory article blaming new technology for unspooling social ties, a conflicting report exists. For example, a recent Pew survey found Facebook users are more trusting and open towards others than non-Facebook users, and revive dormant friendships more often.
The Problem Lies Deeper Than Facebook
Posting status updates do not connect people like a heart-to-heart, face-to-face conversation. Neither does sitting in traffic, watching TV, working long hours, playing video games, listening to music and every other human activity that doesn’t require in-depth human conversation.
When people spend all their time on Facebook and texting at the expense of engaging in real-life dialogue, it does add to their feeling of isolation. But it does not create it. Moreover, for people who face trouble socializing in traditional ways, including children on the autism spectrum, mobile technology enhances the ability to meaningfully engage with others.
The underlying causes prompting lonely people to log in to their Facebook accounts and send texts instead of meeting up with their friends are tangled up in the entire modern mode of living, and for the most part, outlets like social networks provide short snippets of communication that bolster daily lives, not detract from them.