Has Social Media Caused A Loneliness Epidemic?

31 October 2023 |
Episode 19 |

Episode summary

We’re spending less time in person with other people than we did 20 years ago…but did you know that loneliness could kill you? In this episode, I explore the issue of loneliness in the digital age and how social media is both connecting and disconnecting you from others. I examine the important difference between loneliness and being alone, the surprising physical and mental health consequences of loneliness, and the impact social media is having on your ability to form and maintain offline relationships. I also share practical advice on how to overcome loneliness and nurture your real-life connections, and challenge you to consciously reconnect with someone important to you.

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • How social media is making you more connected but less sociable by replacing your real life relationships with lower quality connections
  • Your innate biological desire for social connection and why loneliness feels so uncomfortable
  • The surprising impact of loneliness on your mental and physical health, and why we’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic
  • The important difference between loneliness and choosing to be alone
  • Dunbar’s number and how many people your brain has the capacity to maintain stable social relationships with at any one time
  • How relationships shift over time and significant life changes as you get older can create distance between you and your friends
  • Why social media makes you feel closer to people than you actually are, and how this affects your perception of the number and quality of your relationships
  • The difference between acquaintances and real friends – and how to spot the difference
  • How to tell if you’re lonely and practical steps for tackling loneliness with, and without, using technology
  • The conversation connection challenge

Resources and tools mentioned:


Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:33] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you are doing really, really well. I hope you’re having a great day. If you’re new around here, then welcome. I’m so glad that you have decided to join me. And if you’ve been listening for a while, then it’s really great to have you back.

[00:00:52] This episode is sponsored by my #TechTimeout Challenge, which is the only 30 day digital detox plan created specifically for busy women. Once a day, for 30 consecutive days, you step away from all your digital devices, and you do one simple offline activity instead that will take you anywhere from 5 minutes to a few hours to complete.

[00:01:19] And the selection of activities that are included in the plan are proven to boost your physical, mental, and emotional health. They’re a whole lot of fun and most of them don’t require any special equipment or for you to spend loads of money. All you have to do is show up for yourself each and every day, and the rest will follow.

[00:01:42] Now, you can do the challenge at any time, I’ve put everything into a free step-by-step guide for you. But I’m really excited today to announce that I am officially kicking off a challenge starting next week on the 6th of November. So if you want a little extra motivation and accountability, then I’d love for you to join me on this journey. All you have to do is head to thedigitaldietcoach.com/techtimeout-challenge and sign up to receive your free guide and get access to all the challenge tools and resources. I’ll put a link in the show notes, but make sure that you do it today because you need to give yourself enough time to prepare and make sure that you can hit the ground running next Monday, if you want to take part in the challenge.

[00:02:32] And I’m really excited about this because, truth be told, I’ve been letting some of my own bad digital habits creep back in over the last few weeks. My Instagram use has gone back up, and I’ve found myself mindlessly scrolling through the feed and through stories as a way to unwind or de-stress, and also to procrastinate a little bit.

[00:02:54] And I’ve had my head down working so much that I’ve also been a bit antisocial lately. I haven’t been making much effort to see and speak with my friends. So I’m really looking forward to all the activities that are included in the challenge that are designed to reconnect you with the important people in your life, because I definitely feel like I need it right now.

[00:03:17] As much as I love my work, because of all the things that I’m constantly juggling, and the fact that I live alone and I work remotely, it’s really easy for me to go weeks without physically seeing another human being. And that’s just not healthy.

[00:03:33] Biologically speaking, humans are social creatures, and you may remember me talking about the love hormone, oxytocin, back in Episode 15. Its whole function is to help us create bonds with others and form social alliances. From an evolutionary perspective, we need other people for our own safety and security, to encourage reproduction, and to guarantee the long term survival of the human race.

[00:04:01] But from an emotional perspective, when we lack those bonds, or we don’t nurture our relationships and those bonds become weaker, or they sever themselves all together, it can leave us feeling quite lonely and isolated. And I definitely feel that this has been my experience a little bit over the past few weeks while I’ve had my head down.

[00:04:21] What’s crazy to me is that technology has given us an infinite number of ways to connect with other people. So why do so many of us feel more alone than we ever did before? And why are we seeing reports and news headlines claiming that we’re heading for or already in the middle of a loneliness epidemic? So, that’s what I’ll be unpacking in today’s episode as we continue with our mini series on all things social media.

[00:04:50] Now, if you are new to the podcast and you want to catch up, because we have covered a lot of ground already, then the miniseries starts at Episode 13, and you can just head right over there and listen to those four or five episodes to get up to speed.

[00:05:05] And if you still haven’t subscribed to the podcast, then make sure that you hit that button so that you don’t miss the final few episodes of the miniseries and, of course, all the other episodes that are yet to come. All of the episodes are going to help you create healthier digital habits and more balance in your life. And as you can see, it’s not just me preaching from a pulpit – I need these things too.

[00:05:28] So, getting back to loneliness. Well, what is loneliness? And I think it’s important to distinguish between loneliness and being alone or solitude. Both obviously refer to being mentally and sometimes physically alone, but solitude is generally considered to be a positive emotional state which you’ve actively chosen. On the flip side, loneliness is a negative emotional state that most people spend their time trying to avoid.

[00:06:00] When you deliberately choose to switch off and disengage from all the immediate demands of other people, and life in general, which most of us could benefit from in this 24/7 always on world, it’s a positive experience. Many important things happen when we’re left alone, from reflection to creativity, and we’ll talk more about why it’s important to disconnect and take this time for yourself in the final episodes of the miniseries, which are coming up soon.

[00:06:30] But loneliness is different. If you feel lonely, it’s a sign that there are deficiencies in either the number or the quality of your social relationships. Maybe even both. And these deficiencies result in a feeling of distress or discomfort, because you see that there’s a gap between your desire for social connection and your actual experience of it.

[00:06:56] Loneliness can be physical. So you may have experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic when we were put into a series of lockdowns, and we weren’t allowed to socialise with our friends and our families. We weren’t going out to work or to do other social activities. We just had to stay in our homes with the people that we lived with.

[00:07:19] But even when you’re physically surrounded by other people, it’s completely possible to feel mentally isolated. If you’ve ever been in the physical company of someone or of a group of people who are all on their phones, then you’ll know that it’s really easy to feel like you’re alone. And this is really the crux of the problem. The main reason you probably joined a social media platform was to connect with the other people in your life, and because of a fear of missing out on important social events or conversations that would leave you feeling socially excluded if you didn’t join the platform.

[00:07:56] And this was Facebook’s whole growth strategy at the beginning. They effectively created the blueprint for this process. If everyone in your school or college is on this social platform, then you don’t want to be the only one who isn’t there. And the number of friends that you have on a platform starts to become important for your social ranking, even if you don’t have meaningful friendships with all your connections, or you actually have more or better quality friendships in real life.

[00:08:25] And the hold that this has on you is a strong one. It’s the same reason why people won’t, or don’t, leave social media platforms even when they’re no longer serving or using them. They’re afraid of losing connections or missing out. It’s the reason why many people didn’t leave WhatsApp for Telegram, or for Signal, when there were concerns about WhatsApp’s privacy. It’s only worth moving to those platforms if all your friends and family are moving too.

[00:08:52] It’s the same reason why you might keep a Facebook account open, even though you hardly ever use it and you’re mostly using Instagram or TikTok now. You don’t want to lose those older connections, even if you don’t interact with them on a regular basis. And of course, it’s one of the reasons why people who do leave social media platforms often end up coming back.

[00:09:14] Some of you might remember that the US model and presenter, Chrissy Teigen, who’s married to John Legend, dramatically quit Twitter a few years ago because she said that the negativity on the platform had taken too much of a toll on her mental health. A mere three weeks later, she was back, saying, “Turns out it feels terrible to silence yourself, and also no longer enjoy belly chuckles randomly throughout the day, and also lose like 2000 friends at once.”

[00:09:44] But the thing is, these platforms have made us less, rather than more sociable, in our real lives. Across age groups, people are spending less time with each other in person than they were two decades ago. And this effect is the most pronounced in young people aged 15–24, who have 70% less social interaction with their friends. And even when you are in a social situation with your friends, you can be sat opposite people who genuinely care about you, and who you genuinely care about in return, and be completely distracted by all the other noise and all the other less significant relationships that your digital devices and social media are giving you access to.

[00:10:30] As a society, we’re using social media as a replacement for in person relationships, and this often means much lower quality connections. You’re investing more time in your online relationships at the expense of investing time and effort in your real life offline relationships. So, inevitably, when you turn to the real people in your life, either for socialising, or when you’re in need, or in a crisis, they’re not there. They’re not in the same place that you left them and they’re not as available to you, because you haven’t taken the time to nurture those relationships.

[00:11:08] And this is really how loneliness starts to creep in. Because you don’t feel like you have the same relationship with people that you used to have, you feel less able to, or less confident in, reaching out to them. And instead of pushing through those fears and doing it anyway, you end up turning back to social media for company and for connection, which creates a vicious cycle.

[00:11:31] Now, obviously, friendships and relationships change over time, irrespective of social media. Especially as we get older, the number of friends that we have typically decreases. Our social circles get smaller and smaller. We have busier lives with more competing demands on our time, so we simply have less time for socialising than we did when we were kids.

[00:11:54] The most important relationships in our lives change too. Where your friends may have once been the priority, you might now find that your focus is on a partner or spouse, it might be on your children, or even on your co-workers because you naturally spend most of your week with them anyway. And this shift can be really significant, especially if you’re at different life stages to your friends, or if you’ve chosen a completely different life path.

[00:12:22] I know for myself, as someone that’s self-employed, I don’t have the same time boundaries around my work that my friends who work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 do. Especially the ones that hate their jobs and can’t wait to clock off from work, so that they can get home to their partners or their kids, or just to do something that they actually care about and are passionate about. I’m not always available during weekends, but I can take a month off to travel if I want to, without having to get someone else’s permission. But I also don’t have children, at least not right now. So I don’t have the same demands that being a parent comes with, especially in those early years.

[00:13:00] There was a great article that I read in New York Magazine about friendships between people with babies and people without them. I’ll link it in the show notes, but in the opening paragraphs, it quotes a 2017 study that was published in the journal Demographic Research. And that study concluded that the strength and the quality of friendships typically decreases after people become parents. And most of that quality degradation occurs when children are around three years old, because that’s when kids needs are the most demanding of their parents time and energy.

[00:13:34] Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with having a 9 to 5 job, or being an entrepreneur, or having kids, or not having them. I’m also not saying that one group is more or less likely to be lonely than the other. I’m simply saying that all of these things have a significant impact on the time that you have available for nurturing social connections. So if you’re wasting it away on social media, on less important or less fulfilling connections, then this could ultimately contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation unintentionally.

[00:14:08] And there’s another dimension to this, because you might have 500 or 1, 000 connections on social media, but as humans we don’t actually have the capacity to keep up with this many people. In the 1990s, there was a British anthropologist called Robin Dunbar, and he proposed what has come to be known as Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s number suggests that cognitively, our human brains can only maintain stable social relationships with 150 people at a time. He said that a stable relationship involves trust and obligation. We need to know who each person is and how they relate to every other person within that 150 people, and Dunbar explained his principle informally as being the number of people who you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.

[00:15:08] So it’s quite clear that this isn’t going to be the hundreds or thousands of social media connections that each of us has. That doesn’t mean that some of those social media connections can’t be part of this number. There is research demonstrating that the closeness in a relationship increases when you engage in one-on-one communication on Facebook. So, for example, one-on-one communication through posts or comments or messages, as well as when you consume broadcasted content, such as your connections’ status updates or you look at their photos. And this is because the nature and the frequency of these interactions on social media, quickly fosters that trust and obligation that Dunbar was talking about. While also contributing towards your understanding of who that person is and how they relate to others within your network.

[00:15:59] But there’s a falsehood at work here, which contributes to the loneliness epidemic. Because interacting with people on social media and consuming their content might make you think that you know people. It might make you think that you know what’s going on in their lives, and that you can trust or rely on them, or vice versa. But it might not translate into real life, and oftentimes it doesn’t.

[00:16:24] We talked in the previous episode about how people show up online and how this curated presentation of their lives doesn’t always reflect what’s really happening for them. It’s a highlight reel. Plus, we’re not having proper conversations with each other because it’s easier to smash the like button, or quickly send an emoji reaction, rather than taking the time to deeply and meaningfully engage with people. So if this is all that you, or they, are going on, and you’re not having real life interactions or offline conversations to supplement those conversations that are more authentic, then you can easily miss that someone is feeling lonely or depressed. And other people may assume that you’re fine and have no clue that you’re going through a tough time either.

[00:17:10] I spoke on the previous episode about my personal experiences with depression and anxiety, and I know that when I’ve spoken to people after coming out of an episode, they’ve been completely surprised to hear about it because I seemed to be fine on social media. And I’ve been guilty of this too, I sat down with a friend over the summer who’s been having a really challenging time, and I had no idea because I hadn’t reached out to her. I just assumed, wrongly, that her absence from social media meant that she was busy.

[00:17:43] So while Dunbar contextualised relationship closeness using a drink in a bar analogy, I’d like to offer you something a little bit simpler. If something good or bad is happening in your life, who is the person or who are the people that you would call? And if something good or bad was happening in those people’s lives, would they feel comfortable calling you?

[00:18:08] If the answer is yes, these are real relationships and these are your friends. If the answer is no, these are often acquaintances and people that you know, but they’re not really your friends. And while you can have as many acquaintances as you want, and acquaintances do have a role to play in our lives, it’s important that they don’t come at the expense of real friends. Otherwise you may find yourself experiencing feelings of loneliness.

[00:18:36] Now I admit that sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. There are people who will be around when times are good, but who are nowhere to be found when everything around you is crumbling down. There are people who you feel close to because a circumstance necessitates that you spend a lot of time together or you talk often, for example, you work for the same company or in the same team. But that closeness disappears as soon as the circumstances change. So if you change jobs or the project that you’re working on ends.

[00:19:07] And there are surface level friendships, fake friendships, and even frenemy situations, especially on social media, where on the surface you have the appearance of liking, and celebrating, and supporting each other, but offline you either feel uncomfortable, you don’t really care, or you actively dislike one another.

[00:19:28] And the best example I can give you of this is, I remember a few years ago bumping into someone that I went to high school with, while I was out walking on Hampstead Heath. We were Facebook friends, like most people are with people that they went to high school with. So, I knew that in the 15 or so years since I’d last physically seen her, that she had come out as gay, she’d gotten married to her partner and had a baby, both of whom were there when I bumped into her along with her mum, and that one of her siblings had really sadly passed away very young from a sudden illness.

[00:20:03] And I’m pretty sure that I liked and congratulated her when she posted about coming out, and about getting married and having a baby, and that I sent my condolences for her loss when she announced that she had lost one of her siblings. But in that real life moment, standing on Hampstead Heath, I felt so awkward and it didn’t feel comfortable to bring any of that up. Suddenly finding myself face-to-face with her, it felt really weird to acknowledge any of these things that she had posted about publicly, but hadn’t told me personally. Even though we both know that we’re connected on Facebook, and that I would have seen them and reacted to them.

[00:20:44] So instead I let her introduce me to her partner and her child, as though I had no clue who they were. And, I’m a little ashamed to admit, that I didn’t offer any words to her, or her mum, about the death that they’d had in their family. And it’s something that I still think about to this day, because I think it really typifies exactly the problem with these online social relationships and connections that we have, and the difference between that and what happens in real life.

[00:21:11] So social media really has a huge and varied influence on our perceptions and our experience of the number and quality of our relationships, and therefore by consequence how lonely we can feel when the two don’t quite match. And while you probably think of loneliness as being a largely mental or emotional burden, it does have physical impacts too.

[00:21:35] An advisory report from the U. S. Surgeon General, which cited various studies, even suggested that loneliness might kill you, because loneliness is more than just a bad feeling. When people are socially disconnected, yes, their risk of anxiety and depression increases. But there’s also a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. And this increased risk of premature death that’s been associated with social disconnection is comparable to the risks that are created by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

[00:22:16] So that’s why it’s being billed as a loneliness epidemic. Loneliness has real consequences for our health and our wellbeing, and the magnitude of these consequences is on a par with the scale of the opioid crisis, and the obesity crisis. Social connections really matter, not just for our cognitive health, but also for our physical health. And the longer a person feels disconnected, the easier it is for them to stop believing that other people have their interests in mind, or that it’s even possible to find that common ground and connection with other people anymore.

[00:22:53] So, being the big problem that it is, how do we address it? Well, understanding the signs of loneliness is the first step. Some people react to loneliness by withdrawing and getting really quiet. Other people react by becoming irritable and angry, and they might lash out more. So if you’ve found yourself withdrawing or becoming noticeably irritable or angry, take a little time to reflect on what’s happening in your life. And similarly, if you’ve noticed these things in other people, reach out to them. Sometimes you need somebody else to tell you that you’re behaving differently or that you’re being withdrawn, in order to help you identify that you might actually be dealing with loneliness.

[00:23:43] The second step is obviously to do something about it. Make a conscious effort to connect with people in real time, in real life. Don’t just send a WhatsApp message or a DM or trade emojis. A phone call or a FaceTime is great, but a face-to-face meetup is even better. You need to re-establish quality connections with people, and this is really the only way to do that. And I guarantee that you will have much richer and more authentic conversations. You’ll have an opportunity to be vulnerable and get deeper than is possible in the short, fleeting interactions that you’ve been having online.

[00:24:25] It’s up to you how many people that you do this with, and it will obviously be limited by the amount of time that you and the people in your life have available. But don’t be deterred if you can’t connect with everyone immediately. It’s really easy to feel defeated or rejected when you can’t connect with people at the exact moment that you want to. But putting time in your diaries for a few days or few weeks from now will also give you something to look forward to, and help mitigate some of those feelings of loneliness.

[00:24:56] As I said, I’m often head down in my work and I’m so busy. And when I do look up and I have time to hang out with people, I haven’t made any plans and I assume that everyone else has already made plans, so I don’t bother reaching out sometimes. And that’s not necessarily true, but by not reaching out, I don’t get those opportunities to connect with people. And I can perpetuate my own feelings of loneliness.

[00:25:21] So I’ve realised that I really have to make a conscious effort to reach out to people and to make plans, even if those plans are really, really far in the distance, because that creates those opportunities for those real connections, when I need them most. And if you feel like you don’t have the friends in your life to do this with, or you don’t have the family or the siblings, then it’s time to put your big girl pants on and make some new friends who you do share common interests with.

[00:25:49] And, somewhat ironically, despite all its flaws, technology and social media can actually help you with this. Think about the things that you’re interested in, and then use Google or search Facebook for meetups and communities that host offline events that you can get involved in. I’ll put a link to a couple of great sources in the show notes to get you started, but there is definitely no shortage of meetups and events happening, and the number of topics that they cover, the random niche interests is amazing.

[00:26:22] So, if you feel like you maybe don’t connect with the people that are around you or already in your life, this is where technology can help. Use the internet, use social media to find your tribe, and then take those connections offline into the real world, where you’re going to get the most from those interactions.

[00:26:41] You can even consider using the BFF mode on dating apps like Bumble to make new friends. The dating apps are smart, they’ve cottoned on to the fact that not everyone is looking for romantic connections, sometimes we just need a friend. Because it is definitely harder to make new friends the older you get. But it’s not impossible, especially given the communities that technology now gives you access to.

[00:27:05] Above all, remember that you are not alone. Even if you feel lonely, there is a whole world of people out there waiting for you to discover them. But you’re only going to be able to do that if you get offline and nurture relationships with all the incredible people that are already in your life, and the ones that you’re yet to meet.

[00:27:26] That’s it for today’s episode, but before we wrap up, it’s time for this week’s challenge. It’s another simple one, and probably a little bit predictable given the content of this week’s episode. But I challenge you to connect with a friend for a real life conversation this week. Bonus points if you do it in person. It can be a quick coffee or a four hour boozy brunch, whatever tickles your fancy. But if you can’t manage that, then a phone or a video call will do.

[00:27:56] And your goal is really to go beyond the surface. Don’t just talk about the weather or ask superficial questions about work. I want you to get really deep. This is your opportunity to check in on your friends and make sure that they’re okay. And also to be vulnerable yourself and let them in on the good, the bad, and the ugly things that may be going on in your own life.

[00:28:19] As always, I’m curious to hear how you get on, and if you learn anything new either about yourself or about your friends. So the place to let me know, and to connect with other listeners that are taking part in the challenge, and discuss this episode in more detail is The Digital Diet Lounge, my dedicated community space for all things digital wellness. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes, which you can find over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/019.

[00:28:52] I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode, and in the final four episodes of our social media mini series, we’re going to be digging into whether you should take a break from social media or quit it completely, given everything that we’ve been discussing about the impacts that it has on your wellbeing. And whatever you decide, I will be giving you some practical advice, and some hints and some tips, to keep that break going or to keep away from social media, if you decide that you want to part ways with the platforms.

[00:29:23] You don’t want to miss these episodes, so make sure that you subscribe to the podcast on the platform that you’re listening on, so that you’ll get notified as soon as those episodes are released each and every week.

[00:29:34] I know that you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable so, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little bit of your day with me, and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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