On social media, who we are is the absence of everything we could have been. | Quartz

Is Social Media making you more Lonely?

Advertising actually funds loneliness in a way.

Go to the profile of Michael K. Spencer
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Mar 31

How often do you feel lonely? Has it gone up in the last five years? What could be the reason for it? If like me you have noticed that apps make you distraught but you can't quite put you're finger on it, you are probably not alone.

The very digital dopamine that they use to hook us one, the apps themselves are making us feel emptiness. It's like an internet orgasm gone wrong and it's becoming a fancy and secret "techxistential crisis". Finally in 2019, the negative effects of social media, more common in ecosystems where users use an anonymous "alias" to protect their privacy like Reddit, Twitter and now even on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, people aren't behaving cordially any longer.

Even in Psychology Today, it's now recognized that we are plagued by a loneliness epidemic. In the last fifty years, regardless of geographic location, gender, race, or ethnicity, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. What does that mean? It means if you crave apps and Netflix, you are likely spending less time in face to face interactions with your family, your friends, and meeting less people.

In society we're living alone more, having less sex and getting married later. Many Millennials and Gen Z will never own property. That is, we'll never even "settle down". More of us won't have children, by choice, necessity or the economic reality of the 2008 recession fall-out of job and economic uncertainty.

The link between our well-being or lack of it and apps and social media is a Silicon Valley mistake. A study from the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University finds that social media use --- or at least negative experiences on social --- is linked to more feelings of social isolation, a.k.a. loneliness.

Apps not living up to their persona of connection and being like a family of apps meanwhile exploiting us for data and behavioral tracking for digital Ads? The Western internet it appears took some wrong turns and for many of us, it's helping us feel trapped and miserable in a kind of technological isolationism. Who pays the bills for the cost on our lives, mental health and well-being? The advertising profits don't come back to us, but fuels a surveillance capitalism where our freewill will be even more trapped, and then there's the loneliness.

We are social beings, but what happens when Instagram, YouTube, Netflix and this Facebook culture of apps provides too much stimulation that's not actually social? We lose time, time young people would ordinarily be talking, not hooked on Snapchat streaks. Apps have turned us into digital junkies where we are lacking connection, at least for a growing segment of the population.

In a study on college students, for every 10% rise in negative experience on social media, there was a 13% increase in loneliness.

Guess what, when we go on social media and don't find meaningful interactions, that in itself is a negative experience. So why do we keep doing it? Searching for something that isn't there? It's because product designers at companies like Facebook and Instagram have created a fun-house mirror that distorts our sense of self through our perception of others. It just so happens it's also a contributing factor of a loneliness epidemic caused by technology, algorithms and a dehumanized internet.

Treating the internet as our mirror only limits us to our perceptions within it. Compounded by anonymous aliases, stories that have no connection to chats, voyeurism that's inauthentic, it becomes clear we've created features of app addiction that are bad actors in how the internet "infects" us with technological loneliness. It's bad, it's worse than jaded, it's horribly toxic. It's that "techxistential crisis" with no legal protection for vulnerable real people. There's no legal recourse against corporations doing this and impacting collective sentiment like this.

We often think as loneliness as our problem, something wrong in our psychological makeup. We rarely see the big picture and see how there are sociological big-picture reasons why mental health and trust might be in decline in cities, on the internet and in our personal and professional lives in general? We rarely think of how our experience online might impact our personal lives and our perpetuity to anxiety, loneliness or even depression.

I agree with Quartz that selfie culture is detrimental to our tendency to compare ourselves with the world. That is when we look at content designed to influence us, at selfies of supposed perfect moments eclipsing perfect filtered scenes, or those awesome stories of supposed real experiences, we can only be and feel insufficient. It's created the perfect storm for negative comparison that could trigger loneliness. The sad part is this could only be by design. This is, because lonely people will actually be tempted to self-medicate by spending even more time on these apps.

It's intuitive that people who don't have meaningful social interactions in their real life might spend more time online. In a survey exploring social media patterns, it was found that individuals who spent more time on social media every day felt lonelier than those who spent less time engaged in social media. That's a fact. These apps are toxic for people who have a lower threshold to feeling lonely and recent research indicates that's a significant percentage of the global population.

The loneliness link to apps is one of the best kept secrets in Silicon Valley. It's in my humble opinion, a criminal element of the techxistential crisis that has to do with a lack of oversight and regulation of tech companies and what they do to people. The internet is a young creature and algorithms and AI can be used for ill in ways that aren't superficially clear at first.

The wanton search for the best self outside of ourselves is best defined by 20th-century philosopher Jacques Lacan. His concept of the Ideal-I is someone you aspire to be but whom you will never become.

Instagram is designed to play on our vulnerability to our self-image or our lack of real social connection. Part of the addiction then is the dream of our identity, where young people are especially vulnerable here to be played and hijacked on a biochemical level by apps like these designed to hook our attention on a daily basis, not only stealing our time but poisoning our mental health and turning us to the dark side of loneliness angst.

It also may be that socially isolated people lean toward social media use that involves negative interactions. Does social media make us less happy or are unhappy people more prone to social media and app addiction?

We've been told teenagers have more anxiety than ever. That the internet causes incurable loneliness. It appears then that app addiction is nearly a rite of passage for some teenagers that often doesn't end even in their twenties. As we close our Facebook accounts, not all of us can say we have positive memories of the time we spent there.

The problem is that smartphone use can form neurological connections similar to connections that are seen in individuals with an opioid addiction. Our motivational and affective systems are here essentially hijacked. So apps such as Tinder, or Instagram are essentially predator to our human vulnerability to want social interaction, attention and connection. These stories don't always end well, and then we are left feeling lonely again.

So where are we in 2019? Study after study has found that people who utilize their phones more often were more likely to report feeling anxious, depressed, isolated, and lonely. When our well-being is at stake it's not something a digital detox can easily fix, when we've been feeling intensely lonely other aspects of our life can fall apart.

Sadly in relation to Facebook's "family of apps", asking if social media makes you lonely and depressed is a little like asking if eating makes you fat.

The more sticky apps are the most Ad-revenue they can make from brands, so in this sense, the more lonely we are the more Facebook is profiteering on our mental health vulnerabilities of using social media more, not less. It's a catch-22 and one of the most tragic results of the Advertising based Internet circa 2006 to 2020. It's turned us into digital zombies that want to feel more connected, but end up feeling more lonely.

Let me ask you another question. Has your sleep been poorer in the last few years? Have you been by chance, spending more time in apps? An increase in social media use has been associated with increased distractibility and sleep disturbances. We are talking academic and scientific studies here.

In 2019, we seem more likely to have eye contact with our smartphones than even looking at each other in public spaces. Yet if you look at the expressions of these people watching their phones so intently, there is that familiar blank stare of yet another heart and brain being hacked.

The internet can be a beautiful world but with features designed to addict us and not empower us, with censorship, apps that act more like bad actors then providing us with genuine connection, there's a sense that the internet has become corrupt and apps equally enslave us as they stimulate us. Even if, you are among the lucky few who are immune to feeling lonely due to your online or in-app activities.

One thing can easily lead to another. Apps, Instagram or Netflix or any other app for that matter can lead to a lack of adequate rest could cause individuals to become susceptible to mental health risks. Over time, a lack of finding genuine connection online could be generalized by people to being unable to make, keep or nourish friends, or turn acquaintances into friends and cause us to feel more lonely.

Our digital hygiene and the apps we let into our life forms a constant mix of negative and positive experiences that can impact our internal subjective well-being and even influence our sense of self. 2018 might have been the end of social media as we know it, when many of us began to realize this with all of the Facebook scandals.

Humanity seems to have an ingrained sensitivity to negative experiences online. Just as you might avoid toxic and difficult people in real life, the way we navigate our online lives must become more careful if we are to avoid some of the dangerous mental health issues around apps, social media and especially relating to loneliness. When something is an epidemic it's not your fault, it's something in society that need to be fixed, it's a public health crisis. If only technology companies took a stand, we'd be happier for it, sleep better and lead less lonely lives.

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