The prevalence of social media is shaping our culture in major ways. We talk to friends and strangers online instead of in person, order groceries from a website, solve technological problems via chatbots, and sort through potential romantic partners by joining dating sites.
Social media has become a huge part of our work lives too. Many working professionals know that attracting an audience requires a strong online presence. They often spend most of their waking hours updating, monitoring, and growing participation on their businesses’ social media sites. They feel like they can never leave social media, and that constant connection doesn’t leave a lot of time for personal interactions.
It’s not unusual to have thousands of “friends” on Facebook yet still feel alone. Looking at other social media posts and pictures constantly also leads to never-ending comparisons that whittle away our confidence and can lead to depression. Combined, these factors can lead to devastating levels of social disconnection. Read on to learn more.
Why do we need physical connection?
Humans gravitate to one another for several reasons, whether to create a family together or build a company focused on achieving a shared goal. Strong social bonds are not only critical to developing purpose and meaning in life, but they also keep us physically and mentally healthy.
"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival … Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly," says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.
“There’s a growing body of evidence that our relationships have direct influence on health-relevant physiological processes including blood pressure, inflammation, cellular aging, and immune processes.”
Research also supports the idea that communicating with friends and loved ones strengthens mental health, and recent studies are underscoring the theory that this form of socialization is critical to a person’s overall health.
According to Alan Teo, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, “all forms of socialization aren’t equal. Phone calls and digital communication, with friends or family members, do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression.”
How does this relate to social media use?
Even if you aren’t actually disconnected from people, the feeling of being isolated from others can also cause damaging physiological changes.
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine evaluated the relationship between a sense of perceived isolation and the amount of time adults were active on social media. The results showed that those who spent more than two hours a day engaging online doubled their chances of feeling socially isolated, as compared to those who spent fewer than 30 minutes on social media daily.
Holly Shakya, an assistant professor from the University of California, San Diego, conducted a study that examined the correlation between a sense of well-being and Facebook use. She found using the social network negatively impacted factors such as physical and mental health and life satisfaction.
"What we know at this point is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being," says Shakya.
How is technology solving this problem?
Social media developers are finding ways to use the same technology that can bring people together to help those who feel disconnected:
- For people having thoughts of harming themselves — or for friends of those who are — Kik Messenger has created wellness bots offering peer support, inspirational quotes, or mindfulness techniques.
- Crisis Text Line sidesteps the hesitancy that some might have about talking to a stranger on the phone by using text to connect individuals to counselors.
- Facebook has developed artificial intelligence technology that uses a proactive approach to identifying risky posts and connecting those in distress to friends or organizations that can help. “In the future, A.I. (artificial intelligence) will be able to understand more of the subtle nuances of language … and identify different issues beyond suicide as well, including quickly spotting more kinds of bullying and hate,” says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
What steps can you take to tackle isolation?
When staying plugged-in is keeping you cut off from meaningful interactions with others, try the following suggestions from Inc.:
Set limits. Limit personal and business activities on social media to certain times of day and stick with your set schedule. Committing to a regular routine leaves room for you to build other relationships in person instead of through social platforms.
Be accountable. You’ll be more likely to stick with your scheduled time on the phone or computer if you enlist a friend or family member to keep you accountable.
Manage your phone. It’s hard to keep away from email and social posts when you’re always notified of their arrival.
"You can really trick yourself into thinking no one is messaging, tagging, or liking your social media if you don't know about it," says social media specialist Aristotle Eliopoulos.
- __Turn off push notifications, put your phone in another room, or shut it off __several times during the day to keep your focus on what’s happening in front of you instead of in the virtual world.
If you need more help
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you feel isolated or depressed. Reaching out for help and determining the cause of your isolation is the first step toward rebuilding those authentic, real-world experiences you might be missing out on now.