“Mister Watson, come here, I want to see you.” With this message, Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, launched the telephone. The door had opened to distant, personal and instant contact.
Almost 40 years later, in 1915, at the opening of the transcontinental telephone line connecting the East and West coasts of the United States, Bell picked up a phone in New York and said again, “Mister Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Watson told him that it would take a week for him to get there from San Francisco.
Now, some 50 years into the Digital Age, there are far more ways to keep in touch. Today, Bell could phone, text, email, tweet, Facebook (they’re also used as verbs these days) and so on. And, if he wanted to see Watson live in San Francisco, he could Skype or use Facetime.
We’re so well connected that we can gather “friends” by the score on Facebook. So why is loneliness such a serious and growing problem? It seems that just as it’s possible to feel lonely in a crowd, someone with a couple of thousand Facebook friends can also feel lonely and socially isolated.
The social media world, according to Turkle
In the 1980s, Sherry Turkle became “smitten” (her word) with artificial intelligence. Journalists now often phone her asking about robots in nursing homes, teacherbot programs or nannybots to look after children.
But her research interests are broader. For instance, she has discovered married couples who prefer to fight online. In an interview with The Guardian, Turkle tells of how some people “wish Siri was their best friend—you can’t make this stuff up.”
She also tells of children who are extremely lonely. “We are giving everybody the impression that we aren’t really there for them.” Our time and ability is compromised by “all that other stuff” we want to do with technology.
“My studies of funerals are hilarious,” she says. “Everybody’s texting. When I ask them about it, they say, ‘Yeah, I do it during the boring bits.’ So that’s the question: What does it mean as a society that we are there for the ‘boring bits’?”
In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle writes, “We say we turn to our phones when we’re ‘bored.’ And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information and entertainment. We are forever elsewhere.”
Phubbing is a word that describes people who ignore the person they are with and instead focus on a mobile phone. “My students tell me they do it all the time and that it isn’t that hard.”
Many of us admit to preferring to send a text message or email than having a face-to-face meeting or making a telephone call. That’s part of our “flight from conversation.”
Here’s the problem: “Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanising—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”
Instead, we can have online conversations between two people who, Turkle says, write themselves into the person they want to be while imagining the other as they wish them to be, constructing them for their own purposes.
There is a loss of reality.
Negatives of social media
Olivia Laing, in The Guardian, writes of her “peak use of social media” during a period of painful isolation in 2011—living in New York, recently heartbroken and distant from family.
“I liked the contact I got from the internet: the conversations, the jokes, the accumulation of positive regard, the favouriting on Twitter and the Facebook likes, the little devices designed for boosting egos. It felt like a community, a joyful place; a lifeline, in fact, considering how cut off I otherwise was.”
Yet she had this growing sense that it was becoming harder to make real connections. At the same time, online hostility increased, as did pressure to appear perfect—and the unknown audience could turn on those posting online.
“My sense of ease on Twitter diminished rapidly when people began posting photos of strangers on public transport sleeping with their mouths open. Knowing that the internet was becoming a site of shaming eroded the feeling of safety that had once made it seem such a haven for the lonely.”
The value of social media
There is much that is good and positive about social media. We’re able to keep connected with people easily. Facebook has proven to be an excellent tool for sharing and keeping in contact with others.
One study, reported in the New Yorker, found that when people were engaged in direct interaction—posting messages or “liking” something—their feelings of belonging increased and loneliness decreased.
On the other hand, when individuals merely consumed the content, it had the opposite effect—lowering feelings of connection and increasing the sense of loneliness. That’s a difference worth noting.
Currently there’s an attempt in Victoria, Australia, to connect more than 100,000 “chronically isolated” people who are older than 60. Many of them will go to the shops and the doctor, but little else. Those in charge of the program say they hear about people who haven’t spoken to anyone for several days. The plan is to help these individuals use technology to become more connected and to free them from their isolation. That’s positive.
I quoted Turkle earlier saying that “face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanising—thing we do.” Robert Putman in Bowling Alone adds that social face-to-face connectedness is “one of the most powerful determinants of our wellbeing.”
There are strong health benefits for individuals connected to their community. Benefits include fewer colds, strokes, heart attacks, cancer, depression and premature deaths from a variety of causes. Close family ties, friendship networks, participation in social events and affiliation with religious or civic associations help to counter the negative of isolation.
“As a rough rule of thumb,” writes Putnam, “if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.”
Further, “If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.” In other words, both are equally bad for you and you should quit both. “These findings are in some ways heartening,” Putnam says. “It’s easier to join a group than to try to lose weight, exercise regularly or quit smoking.”
Researchers in The Longevity Project say it’s more than the “feel-good aspects of having friends that was associated with long life. Rather, it was the more hands-on pieces that mattered most—being in contact with family members, doing things with friends and helping others.”
It’s the give and take of relationships, the caring and support from friends, that make the real difference. That’s what true friendship and healthy family connections provide.
Healthy social media connections have their value, but they can’t replace face-to-face contact. That’s where life is seen in the raw. That not only adds to our health, it’s where we grow best.
Bruce Manners is a retired Signs of the Times Australia editor, having served in the role from 1989–2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.