Loneliness in the United States has now reached epidemic levels. A recent study by Cigna Health Service Company revealed that “two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful… and one in five report they rarely or never feel close to people.” This is curious given the unprecedented opportunities we have to connect with each other through modern technology.
Loneliness is much more than a subjective feeling. It contributes to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z (also known as iGen). Author and researcher Jean Twenge wrote in an article for The Atlantic, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”
Twenge and others trace this mental health crises, at least in part, to our reliance upon hand-held devices and social media. As an article in Forbes Magazine explained, “Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
This is not a social media rant. I regularly rely upon social media to promote my work and connect with family and friends across the globe. I also relish the little dopamine surge when I open up my laptop in the morning and see that last night’s Facebook post garnered dozens of likes. It makes me feel warm inside. It also keeps me coming back: by design.
In a recent article at Slate, Sean Parker, one of the early Facebook investors and its first president admitted, “The thought process was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. It’s a social validation feedback loop. … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Social Media Taps into Our Need
The vulnerability that Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, and other forms of social media are exploiting is our God-given need to connect. Their sophisticated design understands and capitalizes on our deeper needs without actually meeting those needs which often leads to addictive behaviors. As tech designers have admitted, social media sites were created with a profound awareness of our tendency to become addicted. Though a social media addiction is far less stigmatized than other ritualized behaviors (e.g., pornography or drugs), what’s true of one addiction is true across the board: addictions promise us everything, but in the end, leave us unsatisfied and craving more.
Social media purports to help us engage with each other, but in reality, it’s not only a pale substitution for actual face time but can suck us into a black hole. According to current statistics, adults spend between ninety minutes and four hours per day on social media or playing computer games. If you’re spending that much time every day online, according to author Sherry Turkle, “there’s got to be someplace that you’re not. And that someplace you’re not is often with your friends and family.” As she stated in a recent TED Talk, “We’re letting [social media] take us in directions that we don’t want to go. These little devices not only change what we do, but who we are.”
We Need to Admit Our Need
To satisfy our God-given need to connect, we may have to reprogram the ways we think about need. For whatever glorious reason, God deemed that human beings should come into the world helpless and utterly dependent upon others to keep us alive and help us to grow up. Though we are arguably the most intelligent creatures on the face of the earth, we are also the most dependent upon others for the longest period of time. God’s design is always intentional. It seems that human development reveals his desire for us to connect: first with our families and then with our sibling and peers, and ultimately, with him.
As our mothers and fathers (or other caregivers) provide for our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, we learn to bond, or develop emotional attachments to them and later, to others. We also learn that expressing needs draws us into relationship. For example, when a baby cries, he’s letting his parents know that he’s hungry, wet, or cold. As his parents provide for his needs, the parents validate those needs and communicate that the expression of need results in acceptance and relationship.
Part of why we can feel so disconnected and lonely is that many of us are at odds with being needy. American culture promotes a rugged individualism that marginalizes or judges neediness as less than. Social media complicates this issue because it allows us to edit what others see and to present a curated version to the world. If we correlate success and popularity with perfection and independence, we’re pursuing the wrong goal. It’s actually when we admit our need and reveal our mess that others are more likely to draw near to us—and meet our relational needs in the process.
So What Should We Do?
If we’re honest, we can admit that it’s difficult to individuate from culture’s metrics for success and curtail our addictive social media behaviors. As sociologists, researchers, and psychologists drill deeper into the causality of loneliness, they are now actively encouraging us to be more mindful about and limit our electronic device usage. Here are ten suggestions that should help you break free from dependence on social media and handheld devices so that you can meaningfully connect with your friends and family.
- When you’re home, leave your handheld device within sight but refuse to pick it up for an hour. (Resist the urge to just check.) Then increase the time until you can go half a day or even longer without using it.
- Turn it off at a certain time every night, preferably an hour before going to bed.
- Establish a ritual that prevents you from checking any electronic device for at least 30 minutes after you wake up.
- Keep your phone and computer out of your bedroom. (Alarm clocks are not expensive.)
- Delete most or all of the social media apps from your handheld.
- Disable notifications. You’ll be amazed at how much more productive and calm you’ll be without constant interruptions. Grab a copy of Deep Work to understand why this is important.
- Don’t pick up or look at your phone when driving. As in ever. Every day, nine people die in distracted driving accidents. It really can wait.
- Consider calling a friend or really engaging with others on social media rather than passively “snacking” through feeds.
- Hang out with friends at least once a week. When you’re together, suggest that everyone put their phones away. (You might get pushback, but in the end, everyone will enjoy each other more.)
- Invite your friends or spouse to support you as you wean yourself off of social media. Tell them specific ways they can help—and then don’t give them a hard time when they do!
God created us to intimately connect with others. Social media has tremendous potential to help us meet some of our social needs but it can easily become counter-productive and addictive. Ultimately, the only way our loneliness will be eradicated is when we chose to engage with others and risk being known as imperfect, needy people. Orchestrate your life so that the media serves you rather than you serving the media.