The Anti-Social Network?
In 1999, researchers at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University published one of the first studies designed to untangle the web’s social and psychological impact. Their longitudinal study found that the internet enveloped a person in feelings of friendship and connection but, at the same time, increased depression and loneliness. They called their ground-breaking findings the “internet paradox.”
Millennials are perhaps the first generation in human history to prefer—and indulge—in written over spoken communication. Whereas we once preferred to interact face-to-face, we now phone, and where we would once have phoned, now we e-mail, and where we would have once e-mailed, we now text. It’s more expedient, and less socially troublesome.
However, in the past few months, we have seen the rise of an anti-digital rebellion, or at least a re-evaluation, of the prized place these ubiquitous programs play in our lives. A handful of high profile intellectuals writing in The New Republic, The New York Times, New York Magazine and The Atlantic have resurrected the internet paradox.
“I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips,” novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in an editorial, “the further it gets from our hearts.” Sherry Turkle, likewise essaying in The New York Times, wrote that our infatuation with technology has made us sacrifice “conversation for mere connection.” In a lengthy article in The Atlantic, Stephen Marche went so far as to claim that hyper-connectivity makes us mentally and physically ill. But, he said, “loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves.”
These articles all question—some would say target—the social consequences of the now pervasive smartphone and, most importantly, the inescapable pages of Facebook. These dissenters insist that Facebook, whose mission to “make the world more open and connected,” instead isolates us; that the very programs designed to cradle us in hundreds of friends and followers, the “architects of our intimacies,” in the words of Turkle’s Alone Together, instead precipitates intense feelings of social disconnection, jealousy, and depression.
Foer and other prophets of digital doom point to everyday examples of modern melancholy. Before Facebook, you could only suspect that your friends hit town without you. Now you know for sure; the painful evidence blinks right there on your dashboard. Before, exes were remembrances of things past. Now they lead digital lives. We watch—often against our own choice—as new relationships form in our wake. Jealousy and fantasy are no longer consigned to dwellings within our minds, but are triggered, for instance, by an Instagram on a mutual friend’s page.
Whereas once we could covet the greener grass on the other side, now we can envy the curated walls of both friends and enemies. We were once worried about “life satisfaction,” now we sulk because of F.O.M.O.—the fear of missing out. The critics claim that these aren’t simply new tags for old problems; that the very programs designed to organize and embellish our social lives are instead eating them whole; that Facebook is not the antidote to social problems but the root.
Conspicuously absent amid the histrionics and jeremiads of these arguments is the empiricism of statistics. Are we observably lonelier than before because of social media? Is Facebook, even combined with smartphones, really making us lonely? A survey of recent studies turns this story in an unexpected direction.
A Boston University study that was published last year entitled “Why people use Facebook,” found that people flock to Facebook to fulfill two basic social needs: the need to belong and the need for “self-presentation.” This study raises the stakes. Social media isn’t just for entertainment or social accessibility, but serves two observable and principal roles within a hierarchy of needs, weaving itself into the psychological fabric of our existence. Relying on social media to foster belonging and self-confidence creates potential fallout of narcissism and loneliness far greater than previously imagined.
Intriguingly, however, research shows that what we might call the “Facebook paradox” preys on those who already feel isolated and look to the site as a panacea. For socially unsatisfied people, social networking enlarges a pre-existing void. For some, it fuels an addiction. In other words, Facebook isn’t making us lonely; Facebook lures lonely people.
Studies show that Facebook beckons us to the lowest forms of self-worship—narcissism and exhibitionism—but adds one crucial element: seclusion. For socially isolated people, Facebook offers the feeling of connection without having to actually connect in any meaningful social setting. Savings in short-term social discomfort, however, translate into an exacerbated social withdrawal.
Peeping at the beach bodies, home cooked meals, and Goodreads of others sparks upward social comparisons, and downward inferiority complexes, according to a 2013 University of Berlin study entitled “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?” All this passive consumption or voyeurism kindles comparisons, which, according to another study by Stanford University, precipitates feelings of inadequacy in those who already feel a lack of self-fulfillment.
Why does social networking increase feelings of isolation in those who already feel isolated? A run-of-the mill Facebook feed will showcase only the most entertaining, happy, glamorous and congenial parts of a lifecycle. If we look at ourselves and see a messy, complex life, Facebook creates an environment where everyone else looks fulfilled. A depressing status is also a rare status. An unflattering picture is quickly whisked away. All this joy can get disheartening.
Another recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that “There was a significant positive correlation between time spent on Facebook per day and two of the personality variables: neuroticism and total loneliness.” According to the study, Facebook attracts both self-promotional and narcissistic people, and lonely and isolated people, creating a sad mix of those madly pursuing connection for social aggrandizement and those unable to form them.
These studies show that if you constantly suffer F.O.M.O., you likely feel isolated. If the sight of an ex spins you into existential free fall, you are highly sensitive to loneliness. Research also shows that if you spend hours uploading “selfies” to an already overstuffed collection, you are likely to be a self-absorbed egotist.
Thankfully, the aforementioned cases fall in the outer limits of social networking. As the Stanford and Berlin studies show, only the most sensitive fall prey to the new internet paradox. So far, research has shown that we are not becoming hollow androids whose social ties are being torn apart by the now omnipresent digital reality.
Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society Fellow Dr. Zeynep Tufekci claims, “almost all research I have seen shows that people who are social online tend to be social offline, or at most the effect is neutral, and that most people interact socially online with people with whom they also interact offline.” The vast majority of people lead healthy lives on and off line.
Similarly, Dr. John M. Grohol, the founder of PsychCentral.com wrote, “People who are already feeling down or depressed might go online to talk to their friends, and try and be cheered up. This in no way suggests that by using more and more of Facebook, a person is going to get more depressed.” We are not, for the most part, substituting corporeal friends for their digital avatars.
But it would be useful to remember Leon Wieseltier’s poignant and fitting aphorism; “It’s not fair to attack the group for failing to banish loneliness,” he writes in Against Identity. “But it is also not fair for the group to promise that it will banish loneliness.” While Facebook may not have guaranteed an end to social detachment, it did promise connection, an assurance that has led the loneliest down ever more lonely paths.