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The Loneliness Epidemic & Social Media


Jeffrey Lynham

Feeling lonely? You are not alone. A recent survey from the UK reported that more than one in eight people have no close friends.1 Loneliness affects more than just the retired or those living alone. A recent study suggested that loneliness peaks during the late 20s, mid 50s, and late 80s.2 It may seem surprising that young people struggle with loneliness because social media has made it easier to globally connect with people. What matters, however, is the quality of connections, not quantity. In the US, about 10% of Americans who are 50 and older do not have a spouse, partner, or living child—and this group has the highest suicide rate.3 When people reach their 80s, they lose spouses, friends, and their mobility.

Humans are social animals. Being socially connected to others is hardwired in our brains, and when we are disconnected, it can be detrimental to our health. Lonely people experience cognitive decline 20% faster.4 Loneliness has been associated with depression, social anxiety, addictions, and hoarding,5 and it is also a recognized risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.6 A study conducted by Dr. Sheldon Cohen showed that people who felt less connected to others were three times more likely to catch a cold after being exposed to a cold virus.7 In addition, socially isolated individuals are at risk for the development of cardiovascular disease8 and early mortality.9 A study even suggested that loneliness is as closely linked to early mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.10 Furthermore, a longitudinal study by Dr. Lisa Berkman that followed isolated and highly connected people for nine years showed that isolated people were three times more likely to die during that period.11 For the isolated, diseases like cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems, became more fatal.

Individuals who are chronically lonely have elevated levels of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone.12,13 Some stress is good for us; in fact, the stress response was essential in our caveman days when we needed to run, fight, or hide from a predator. Feeling lonely also turns on the stress response because we could not evolve alone; we thrived in tribes. In other words, strength in numbers made us feel safe and secure from predators. Today, our stress response is on about 70% of the time. Since social mores say we can’t run, fight, or hide whenever we are stressed, many people are stepping on the gas because that emergency system is telling them to act, and yet, they are stuck in traffic, they are in a business meeting, or they are responding to an endless barrage of emails—it is as if they are stepping on the brake and the gas at the same time. Our bodies are chronically out of balance, and this has been associated with heart disease, cancer, obesity, social anxiety, ADHD, depression, and substance abuse.

The loneliness epidemic has been fueled by technology and social media, distracting us from cultivating meaningful in-person connections. We spend most of our free time mindlessly scrolling through our newsfeeds, but this does not provide the same benefits as socializing face-to-face. Although our devices allow us to connect with people, most of us use our devices in ways that isolate us. Rather than make a post on Facebook saying, “Anybody free for dinner tonight?” we like pictures, we share funny memes, and we react to other people’s opinions. Sharing a cat video with your 500 “friends” on Facebook is not the same as having deep, intimate conversations with your real circle of friends. Even if we are not totally isolated, social media also affects the quality of our in-person interactions. How often is it that we have been talking with a friend, but we are also checking our inboxes or refreshing social media feeds?

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Census data from the US suggests that teenagers spend 7.5 hours a dayon social media.14 What is even more disturbing is that our devices are designed to keep it that way, to keep us addicted to our screens.15 Some have even described smartphone use as the cigarette of the 21st century.16 When the National Institute of Health looked at the brain scans of 4,500 children, they found that those who had more than seven hours of screen time a day started showing premature thinning of the cortex, the outermost brain layer responsible for processing sensory information.17 A New York Times article even suggested that our attention spans are now less than that of a goldfish.18

Moreover, social media use and video game addictions are associated with depression, anxiety, obesity, and poor sleep.19,20 A recent study showed a direct link between Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram with depression and loneliness, especially in teenage girls.21 These platforms also make people more vulnerable to feeling worse about their bodies.22 Even mothers who use social media cannot help but compare themselves to others, which negatively affects their mental health.23 

Social connections are essential to our health and wellbeing—they can even be a matter of life and death. In the 13th century, German Emperor Frederick II conducted a barbaric experiment. He wanted to know what language infants would speak if they were raised without hearing words. The infants were taken from their homes and were put with people who were instructed to feed them. The caretakers were not allowed to touch, cuddle, or talk to the infants. The babies never spoke a word—they all died before they could speak.24 

With social media today, some people are willing to put their lives at risk just to fit in. Online challenges encourage people to engage in self-harm or to commit suicide. For example, there have been reports of a deadly suicide game aimed at teens called the “Momo” challenge.25 The Momo trend has been likened to the “Blue Whale” game that has been linked to several deaths.26 

Ask yourself: Is my social media use improving or replacing my real-life relationships? Social media is not all bad. It can be used for making new connections, finding online groups that have similar interests, arranging a carpool, or organizing get-togethers offline. But that’s not what most people are using it for. People are using it to escape, to distract themselves. We don’t like to be bored, and we use instant gratification to fill that void.

Certainly, there must be a better way to feel connected with people. Tie yourself more deeply with your family and friends; make an effort to feel closer to the people who matter the most. Give back to others; get involved in a cause that’s bigger than yourself. Change your environment; get rid of triggers that compel you to plug into technology every minute of the day. Delete social media, inbox, and gaming apps that you can use on your personal computer instead. Change the display setting on your phone to black and white so that you can take notice of the colourful world and the people around you.

Make it a priority to cultivate your social connections because the measure of our lives is not determined by what we attain for ourselves; it’s determined by what we share, give, and contribute to others.

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Edited by Kate Rzadki & Emily Deibert


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Article featured in Elemental Issue 6: Social Media