Social Media and Loneliness

Social Media and Loneliness

Americans are more digitally connected than ever before. But new research suggests loneliness is at an all-time high. Social media and emotional well-being.

Online social media platforms have made Americans more connected with each other than ever: more than 40 percent of Americans now have a Facebook account. But new research shows that increasing digital engagement hasn’t changed the fact that Americans are lonelier than ever: a recent survey found that 35 percent of adults over forty-five are chronically lonely, compared to just 20 percent ten years ago. And one-quarter of Americans say they have no best friend to confide in. What increasing digital connections mean for the epidemic of loneliness.


Stephen Marche

author and columnist, The Atlantic and Esquire magazines

Sherry Turkle

professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" (2011)

Zeynep Tufekci

assistant professor, University of North Carolina; fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society

Program Highlights

While social media platforms such as Facebook and Google+ have grown, new research suggests Americans are lonelier than ever. A recent survey found that 35 percent of adults are chronically lonely, while 25 percent said they don’t have a best friend. Our panel discussed what a rise in social networking connections means for offline friendships.

‘A Tribe Of One’

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described Americans as living “alone together.” “That is where we're together because we're always connected, but we're alone because we're kind of in a tribe of one,” Turkle said. She said it has become commonplace to see texting at funerals and emailing during faculty meetings. This leads people to identify less with their community because people unapologetically say their highest value is controlling where they put their attention.

Ambiguous Data

Turkle said the data is ambiguous about the relationship between social media and loneliness. She said some people use Facebook to make online friendships that transition to offline friendships. Meanwhile, others use it for validation. “That isn't nurturing, that isn't satisfying, and there's a lot of pressures when you put yourself on Facebook to present yourself as the self you want to be, as the ideal self, not particularly as who you are, but rather as who you want to be.” Her research shows that people experience FOMO, or fear of missing out, which causes them to live “a life of performance for that larger group.”

Social Media Decreases Loneliness

Many sociologists would say it’s an exaggeration to equate a rise in loneliness to an epidemic, said Zeynep Tufecki, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He said social media isn’t the only factor driving isolation, pointing at traffic and longer work hours. Instead, Tufecki sees social media as the antidote to television, which isolates us, saying people who are active on social media are less lonely than people who don’t use the tools. “I'm looking at national survey after national survey that shows that people who are active on social media actually have more face-to-face interaction as well.” Tufecki said the data show that, on Facebook, people interact intensely with a handful of close friends and interact weekly with a broader network, which reflects our pre-Facebook behavior. Stephen Marche, a columnist at The Atlantic, added, “It's people who already have strong social abilities and strong social networks who tend to flourish on Facebook.”

You can read the full transcript here.

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