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When Connectivity Breeds Loneliness

Jul 22, 2009

by Tim


computer_punch— Time spent online estranges people, endangers health, study finds —

I’ve always thought that the Internet, while profoundly useful, is a lonely place to spend time. Yet online is the “place” where more and more people live their lives.

A study published earlier this year found that Britons spend only 50 minutes a day in face-to-face social interactions, down from six hours daily just two decades ago:

The rapid proliferation of electronic media is now making private space available in almost every sphere of the individual’s life. Yet this is now the most significant contributing factor to society’s growing physical estrangement. Whether in or out of the home, more people of all ages in the UK are physically and socially disengaged from the people around them because they are wearing earphones, talking or texting on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop or Blackberry.

The study, summarized in Biologist, quotes findings from other research:

  • The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled over the past two decades
  • The proportion of people living alone has doubled over the past two decades. For the first time in history, a third of UK adults live alone
  • Children now spend more time in the family home alone in front of either the television or computer screens than anywhere else
  • “iPod oblivion” accounts for the increasing number of deaths caused by earbud-wearers inadvertently stepping into oncoming traffic
  • Parents spend less time with their children than they did a decade ago, and 25% of British five-year olds own a PC or laptop of their own

U.S. citizens fare similarly, according to Aric Sigman, author of the Biologist article, who says that Americans are also stepping back from one another “in unprecedented magnitude.”

Those who came of age amid our ubiquitous electronic connectivity might well ask, So what? This is how we live today. Electronic or physical, socializing is socializing. What’s the problem?

The problem, according to Sigman, is that lack of face-to-face social interaction has been shown to cause “low-grade peripheral inflammation” linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders, among other problems. The biological implications of “social networking” are grim.

Ten years ago a study entitled The Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being? found that greater use of the Internet was associated with deteriorating communication between family members and increased depression and loneliness.

A follow-up study by the same researchers subsequently found a kind of “the rich get richer” phenomenon: positive Internet usage effects for extroverts and negative ones for introverts.

That makes sense. The Internet is hardly a monolith causing identical effects on every user.

Still— and yes, good reader, I fully recognize the irony of saying this in a blog post — protecting ourselves against the deadening effects of techno-culture is one of the defining struggles of our time, and a key theme here at Soul Shelter.

Maintaining a firm resolve to never — ever — write more than one blog post weekly is one way I keep a reasonable offline/online equilibrium. How do you keep yours?

You may also enjoy:

Is the Internet Dangerous?

Fixing a Broken Work Model

Three Books on the Perils of the Internet

3 Comments to When Connectivity Breeds Loneliness

On Jul 25, 2009, Hank commented:

This theme could–and should–be explored exhaustively for years to come. I’ve recently circled back to one of your amazing book recommendations, The Guttenberg Ellegies by Sven Birkerts. Among the many passages that support your thesis, this one stuck out for me tonight:
“The explosion of data–along with general societal secularization and the collapse of what the theorists call the “master narratives” (Christian, Marxist, Freudian, humanist…)–has all but destroyed the premise of understandability.
As useful as our technological advances have been, I’m finding myself filled with a visceral loathing of the Twitter-obsessed, narcissistic mobs who force themselves into every available free cycle of our attention.
I am more aware than ever that the great data explosion I have been navigating through, especially as it pertains to maintaining a competitive edge in my career, has made it more difficult than ever to hang on to my personal “master narrative,” without which I cannot forge forward with any degree of confidence, coherence, or hope. If the psychic toll of staying plugged in causes soul atrophy, I’m putting a stake in the ground and saying “no.”

On Jul 26, 2009, by Tim commented:

Your comment really hits home, especially the part about maintaining a competitive career edge. “Keeping up” Web or blogwise is essential to more and more occupations these days, but at what price?

Look for Birkerts online and you can’t find him, because he walks the talk. That means his ideas won’t live on in an electronic age — just when they’re most needed.

On Nov 19, 2011, Baboon commented:

I thought that I am the only person in the world that feeling this way and I was totally surprised to learn that I am not alone. I was sad to read about your post about your lonely and I really wish to help other people too because your post really reminds me of me. It is okay to feel lonely sometimes because we are just a human and we really need someone to share our feelings sometimes. They could try to connect to people around them. There are actually a lot of people like us that need each other. Let’s just support each other and be true friends to each other. First step is always difficult but I did it anyway. I hope other lonely people out there will do the same too.

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