As I See It: Digitally Enhanced Loneliness
February 24, 2020 Victor Rozek
A friend of mine was dating a woman he met on social media who became frustrated because their relationship wasn’t “deep” enough. It eventually floundered which was unfortunate because outside of his primal fear of commitment, he is basically a nice guy with extensive interests and bountiful skills. I suggested, in his defense, he explain to her that although he may not be deep, given his wide-ranging pursuits he could be thought of as shallow but wide. This apparently didn’t assuage her concerns since they are no longer together, but it is indicative of two things: The disposable nature of relationships; and my poor counseling skills.
It is also tangentially indicative of the dilemma inherent in social media: it allows for a stunningly wide range of exchanges, but its users often mistake contact for relationship. In effect, social media encourages relationships that are shallow but wide. And that, in turn, has spawned a new form of digitally-enhanced loneliness.
Look around at work. Women, men, single, married; some barely out of school, others nearing retirement. If recent research is accurate, nearly half of them would report feeling lonely; some because they lack companionship, others because they feel isolated and excluded. Over half believe no one really knows them. That, in part, may be a result of their own reluctance to “go deep.” Intimacy, after all, is about self disclosure and an unwillingness to divulge will invariably result in feeling unseen and unknown.
Whatever its source, loneliness is said to trigger depression, anxiety, and worse. Neil Howe, writing in Forbes, offers some startling statistics.
Data pooled from 70 studies following 3.4 million people over seven years, “found that lonely individuals had a 26 percent higher risk of dying. This figure rose to 32 percent if they lived alone.” And more and more people do.
“Up until the 1960s,” says Howe, “single-person households were exceedingly rare. But over the past 50 years, the share of U.S. households consisting of one person has more than doubled. It’s now the second most common household type, well ahead of married couples with minor children.”
Not surprisingly, larger cities attract larger populations of singles, who may comprise from 40 percent to 67 percent of inhabitants depending on the city. And those who live alone and work in IT, essentially work alone as well, staring at a screen most of the day, interacting with others only when necessary. Programming, like many facets of IT, is largely a solitary endeavor.
To assuage that sense of isolation, people turn to social media for an average of up to 2.5 hours a day, depending on age. Some of that time is no doubt spent at work, interrupting workflow as people compulsively check for the next post, the next reply, the next tiny release of dopamine that makes loneliness more bearable.
But while the forlorn are striving for every dab of dopamine they can get, another group is overdosing on it. Silicon Valley is apparently such a fun and hyper-stimulating place to work that some genius overtaxed the pleasure/reward center in his brain and decided to go on a dopamine fast. And this being Northern California, land of eccentric ideas, dopamine fasting became a thing.
The idea is that once you’ve normalized a life of high dopamine, there’s no longer a dopamine high. All that stimulation you once craved is now just empty calories. So, unplug from social media; ignore the trendy bars and fusion restaurants; disregard the hot yoga studio and go directly to shavasana, otherwise known as corpse pose. In other words, cut out the distractions, get still, ponder deep thoughts, and get reacquainted with yourself. Think of it as a recycled version of the 1960s dictum to turn on, tune in, and drop out, but with a better work ethic.
A workplace where the lonely seek a dopamine hit, while the over-stimulated seek to avoid one, must seem somewhat schizophrenic. In the office, loneliness usually manifests in one of two diametrically opposed ways. Some will throw themselves into their work, because they have no life outside it; others will spend a lot of energy seeking dating partners. Dopamine seekers chasing after dopamine avoiders: that certainly explains my spotty social life.
Beyond psychological stress, prolonged loneliness can also exact a physical toll. Besides the tendency to self medicate in unhealthy ways, there are cellular changes triggered by prolonged isolation. These changes produce “chronic inflammation, predisposing the lonely to serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
One would think that failing health would dampen the prevailing social media fear of missing out. As a common side effect of posting envy, FOMO was probably never intended to refer to missing out on getting cancer. But then again. . .
Surely the most startling and concerning discoveries came from a study in the United Kingdom.
It ranked loneliness as “the number one fear of young people today,” greater than the fear of losing their job, or even losing their home. But undoubtedly the saddest statistic was derived from the experience of Millennial women. Forty-two percent reported being “more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis.” By far, according to Howe, the highest share of any generation.
It’s hard to know how to respond to that, except to suggest that a sizeable portion of that 42 percent may change their mind should they ever have the misfortune of being diagnosed with cancer. Nonetheless, there seems to be widespread terror of being alone. Apparently, children are not taught how to be comfortable with their own company and later in life some would choose illness over loneliness if it brought them attention.
The irony is that the very thing people turn to in order to assuage their loneliness – social media – makes not having oodles of friends almost heretical. In a sense, posting on the Internet is like reaching out to the world; if the reply is indifference, the message is clear: No one cares.
It’s almost unimaginable that in a world swarming with 7.8 billion people, many equipped with advanced communication technology, so many of us could be so lonely.
But we are.