Is Social Media Fueling the Loneliness Epidemic?
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, with no meaningful end in sight, the psychological toll is starting to add up.
With social isolation at a peak, there have been a variety of reactions as people cope with the effects of no social interactions.
Some obey and comply happily, others struggle as the days blur one into the next, and a few are fighting back, resisting the rules and now defying the directives and protesting to regain their rights to socialize. All responses come with challenges.
One of the biggest and potentially dangerous affects seen is the over saturation of media coverage. Too much influence by the media can have severe impacts to one’s mental health
Excessive exposure to media coverage can lead to serious consequences. How? It activates the fight-or-flight stress response, leading to physiological arousal, and, over time, serious wear-and-tear on virtually all body systems. People who watched several hours of coverage in the days following the 9/11 attack were more likely to develop physical health problems two to three years later than those with less exposure. Not surprisingly, this stress response – and resulting problems – increases with more exposure. People who watched lots of media coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings – defined as six or more hours a day – were nine times more likely to report experiencing high stress than those who watched fewer than one hour a day. These findings demonstrate that cataclysmic events – and the current pandemic certainly counts – may lead to stress even among people who are not directly affected.
Social media is also a serious concern as over use of social platforms can also have adverse affects of people’s perspectives and mental health. Such highly anxious individuals, on their return to social media, apparently show an increased tendency to engage in alcohol consumption when posting. This alcohol consumption will also increase anxieties and depression in the longer term. Such unhealthy behaviours have already been noted in heavy internet users, in addition to poor mental health, and these will promote poor physical health, which has been associated with heavy internet use. These negative effects on the individual will also cause more internet-use driving anxiety, and drinking will tend to produce unfortunate and inappropriate behaviours online.
All of the above maps a very depressing picture of social media as an anxiety and depression driving platform – indeed, it might be suggested that social media is a platform that thrives (depends?) on the production of anxiety and depression. This would not be the first time that an activity, mainly, or in part, depends on its negative consequences for continued usage – think of cigarettes (or, indeed, any addictive substance, for that matter).
There is a further anxiety-driving process that fuels social media use for the digital addict – often termed the ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO. In general terms, FOMO is an anxiety about being disconnected from digital resources, like social media. It might happen if you are in a remote area without a signal, or, in extreme cases, when you are trapped in a real ‘face to face’ situation, and you cannot get your device out for a few minutes!
In so many ways, social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, are mismatched from the kinds of communication platforms that existed for the lion’s share of human evolutionary history. For more than 99% of our evolutionary history, face-to-face communication with individuals whom you knew well was pretty much it. Social media has changed all that—and, as you’ll see below, not necessarily for the better.
Another adverse effect of too much or sensationalized media exposure is that it leads people to engage in misguided attempts to protect their own health that interfere with community health and well-being. In past epidemics, people made more emergency room visits, clogging up the system that was already overloaded by the epidemic. However, the threat of catching the virus in the emergency room may mitigate this effect for COVID-19. When the USA president touted the benefits of a drug called hydroxychloroquine on TV, people rushed to get their doctors to prescribe it even in the absence of current, serious symptoms. This led to drug shortages for other groups, such as people with lupus, who rely on the drug for their daily functioning. There may be other factors besides too much media exposure that drive panic buying or hoarding behaviors, but media exposure can exacerbate the sense of scarcity or threat.
Cognitive psychologists have argued that loneliness may emerge from faulty attributions or dysfunctional cognitive evaluations. For example, some people may appraise social and intimate situations through negatively distorted lenses, judging the odds of failure as high and the consequences as catastrophic. These appraisals may lead to avoidance, which in turn leads to deteriorated social skills, resulting in unsatisfactory personal relationships, and hence loneliness.
Accumulating data have shown that multiple factors converge and interact to shape the experience of loneliness. Evolution indeed plays a large role. Twin studies suggest that about 50% of variations in loneliness are explained by genetics. Personal attributes matter. For example, research has found a link between the personality trait of neuroticism and loneliness. Age appears to be a factor. Research suggests that loneliness tends to decrease in adulthood until around the age of 75 years old, after which it increases markedly. Older adults are more susceptible to loneliness in part because of decreased mobility and independence and the deaths and loss of friends and family members.
The Role of Technology
Technology may also play a role. For example, early studies have noted the ‘internet paradox’ by which Internet use, ostensibly facilitating communication, nonetheless predicts lower communication levels with family and friends as well as increased loneliness. Research since has painted a more nuanced, contextual picture, whereby Internet use may predict more or less loneliness, depending on how it interacts with other environmental or individual variables. For example, people with high social skills may use online connections to augment and expand their offline contacts, thus decreasing loneliness, while people with low social skills and high anxiety may use the Internet as an avoidance strategy, thus eroding their social skills and social ties to negative effect.
In order to better understand how social media may be connected to loneliness, we must first recognize that it is not a simple equation. Just as there are a variety of reasons in which one may use social media, there are different ways in which social media could be fostering loneliness. The ease of accessibility may be causing us to connect more in the digital realm, but disconnect from the world around us. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that even seemingly mild distractions from a buzzing phone could cause individuals to experience a decrease of present enjoyment. For example, if you are at a social gathering and impulsively grab your phone as you feel the notification vibration, even if you do not continue to open the app, this brief moment could cause a feeling of disconnection with others present at the gathering.
Social Media Envy
The Center for Humane Technology highlights that we may experience a fear of missing out that causes us to compulsively check for updates. The persistent need to log-in can inhibit users’ ability to relax and replenish. Lack of adequate rest could cause individuals to become susceptible to mental health risks. Individuals may become glued to their devices to avoid feeling unaware of current events and feel disconnected from others. It is also possible to encounter unwanted updates that prompt feelings of isolation. For example, if someone finds a picture of their loved ones gathered for an event to which he or she did not receive an invitation, seeing this update could trigger the individual to feel excluded.
Exposure to idealized images on social media can also elicit envy. Falling prey to social comparison, individuals who were otherwise content could develop a sense of dissatisfaction by labeling themselves as less successful, happy, or adventurous. In a study of individuals who utilize Twitter and Facebook, participants who admitted to going out of their way to seek validation (e.g., likes) and to portray a perfect profile were more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and be less trusting of others. If an individual is focused on minimizing their flaws and concerns, they may lack the ability to relate to others about actual life experiences. Also, their own knowledge of their altered reality could cause someone to feel fraudulent and disconnected. Finally, their obviously skewed profile could cause others to feel a lack of connection as well.
In sum, many paths lead to the place of loneliness. We still have ways to go in deciphering this profound psychic phenomenon and the mechanisms of its formation and impact. And while loneliness is currently considered a symptom, not a formally diagnosed disorder, a change may be warranted given the accumulating evidence of its complexity, prevalence, and adverse health consequences. For now, clinicians and physicians may do well to include an assessment of the client’s loneliness as part of their initial evaluation checklists. And all of us are wise to take note of our feelings of loneliness, should they arise, and take action to address them. The consequences of not doing so may be far from benign.
Ali, S. (2018). Is Social Media Making You Lonely? Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/modern-mentality/201810/is-social-media-making-you-lonely
Geher, G. (2020). 10 Adverse Effects of Social Media on the Modern World. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/202002/10-adverse-effects-social-media-the-modern-world
Greenberg, M. (2020). Media Exposure to COVID-19: How Much Is Too Much? Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-mindful-self-express/202004/media-exposure-covid-19-how-much-is-too-much
Reed, P. (2020). Anxiety and Social Media Use. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/digital-world-real-world/202002/anxiety-and-social-media-use
Sanderson, C. (2020). Social Media in a Pandemic: The Good News and the Bad News. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/norms-matter/202004/social-media-in-pandemic-the-good-news-and-the-bad-news
Shpancer, N. (2020). Are You Feeling Lonely? If So, You Are Not Alone. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/insight-therapy/202001/are-you-feeling-lonely-if-so-you-are-not-alone
This post is a mash-up of a series of articles written by those authors cited above in the Reference Section and combined here to put forward a new perspective in the face of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. I have added some content and made edits for the sake of flow and grammar.
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. A recent contract was with Wirepas from Tampere, Finland as the Director of Business Development. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.