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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.
- Zeynep Tufekci assistant professor, University of North Carolina; fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society
- Sherry Turkle professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" (2011)
- Stephen Marche author and columnist, The Atlantic and Esquire magazines
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.
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.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The growth in popularity of Facebook, Google+ and other social media have made Americans more connected, but new research shows that we're lonelier than ever. Joining me in the studio to talk about whether there is a link between increasing digital connections and an epidemic of loneliness, Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Joining us from a studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and from a Canadian Broadcasting Company studio in Toronto, Canada, Stephen Marche of the Atlantic magazine.
MS. DIANE REHMYou're welcome to be part of the program. Call us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
REHMStephen, I'll start with you. You've written a cover story for this month's Atlantic magazine. You open that story with a very, very sad story. Tell us what happened to Yvette Vickers and why she is important to this discussion.
MR. STEPHEN MARCHEWell, Yvette Vickers was one of the stars of "The 50-foot Woman." She was also a Playboy playmate, a very sort of active, attractive woman who lived in a Laurel Canyon home, and there's a very sort of grim ending to her life story when she was discovered -- nobody really knows how long she had been dead for, but probably around a year. That's what the L.A. coroner suggested. And she, you know, she didn't have enough friends to -- nobody noticed that she -- the power was still on in her home, you know, her computer was still on as well.
MR. STEPHEN MARCHESo this, to me, seemed liked an iconic way of capturing these two trends that I was trying to understand, one of which is the rise of loneliness and the epidemic of loneliness that is a sort of long-term social trend in America and elsewhere, and also the fact that that seems to contradict the fact that we've never been more accessible, we've never been more connected, and we've never been sort of more technologically available to each other. Trying to under the two of them...
REHMJust let me get one aspect of this story straight. You're saying her computer was still on, the lights in the house were all on, everything indicated that she was still there, but not a single person inquired as to why they hadn't heard from her. Is that right?
MARCHEI think that's right. I don't know if the lights were on. I know a space heater was on. The power was flowing, and I know the computer was on. So yeah, and like a -- eventually, a friend, you know, or someone she knew named Susan Savage sort of wondered where she had been and then knocked through the piles of stuff that were blocking the way and found her, yeah.
REHMAnd she was...
MARCHEIt is like a horror movie, isn't it?
MARCHEYeah. She was -- well, yeah. She was mummified. That's the (word?) , yeah.
REHMOh, that is such a sad and horrible story, but that's not what first got you interested in the subject. Tell us about your mother.
MARCHEWell, my mother recently retired from being a physician, and I was talking to her just before she retired and I asked her what the biggest change she had seen over the course of her career was, and she said it was just incredible rise in loneliness. And then when I went to look at the research -- at the medical research, as well as there's a huge amount of nursing research into this, like nurses trying to figure out what we do with all these lonely people, as well as psychiatric research, pastoral research from priests, people trying to figure out what to do with all these lonely people, as well as, you know, a huge bulk of sociological research and so on.
MARCHESo it does -- the epidemic of loneliness is quite real, and, you know, to try and understand why was sort of my mission.
REHMVery interesting. Mission Stephen Marche. He's an author and columnist for the Atlantic and Esquire magazines. Sherry Turkle at MIT, if we're more connected than ever, how come we're lonelier than ever?
DR. SHERRY TURKLEWell, I capture some of what Stephen is talking about with the metaphor of our being 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. You know, we -- I study parents who are texting at breakfast and at dinner with their kids. I go to classes where students are, you know, they're on their computers and their phones. They're shopping, they're on Facebook.
DR. SHERRY TURKLEFaculty meetings where the faculty is doing their email. Corporate board meetings where everybody's sort of saying that they're doing what's most important to their work. There's texting at funerals. This has become commonplace. And so when you ask people about this, people unapologetically say that their highest value is control over where they put their attention, and that's a positive spin on it. But the negative spin on it is we kind of create a world where we don't identify really with our community, we identify with our -- what we think is our best interest, but we define our best interest as being in a place that's ultimately a lonely place.
REHMSherry Turkle, she's clinical psychologist, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her new book is titled "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other." That was written -- published in 2011. And turning to you Zeynep Fu -- sorry, Tufekci, that's quite a name. I know it's a Turkish name, and I'm sure I'll get it right before the end of the program. How do you see the connection between social media and loneliness?
DR. ZEYNEP TUFEKCIWell, you said it correctly, thank you. The very striking anecdote that Stephen told at the beginning of the -- and I -- the show and the article made me think that this woman was actually not a very active social media user, because if she had been, her friends would have noticed she wasn't around. If I'm not, you know, online for a week or so, I am sure lots of people would be looking for me.
REHMPeople would say, where are you?
TUFEKCIWhere are you, what's going on?
TUFEKCIIn fact, I do agree that people being lonely is a problem and we should really be thinking about, but as a sociologist, 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. They are less lonely. They are less isolated than people who are not using these tools. And to the degree that there's an epidemic of loneliness, a lot of sociologists would say this is bit of an exaggeration. But to the degree we have this problem, usually the things we point at are suburbanization, long commutes, long work hours, people having to work at two jobs, you know, or two-parent families just to get their kids in a school district that's -- I mean, we're now in the D.C. area, you know how the problem is with traffic.
TUFEKCIYou don't really have time. To all these things that isolate us, television -- television takes up -- and this is the elephant in the room in this discussion. It takes up hours and hours of our time and isolates that. I see social media as a counter to this. I see social media and all these tools as a way that people are trying to connect to each other.
REHMSo you see that social media can be helpful, for example, if someone's shy and perhaps uses social media as a way of connecting, but they become even less shy in public encounters?
TUFEKCIThat's absolutely true. Also, a key point, and what you said is absolutely true, and also, I don't see online and offline as displacing one another, and when I look at national surveys, I don't see that people are going online instead of seeing each other face to face. What I see in national surveys is that when people go online and you meet connections, they also want to meet people in person and they do so, and that's my experience too.
TUFEKCIWhen I interact with people more online, I also -- it makes me hunger for that more connection. So it's a more more. People who are more social online...
TUFEKCI...are usually and on average, and this shows in survey after survey, they are also more social in person.
REHMSherry Turkle, how do you see it?
TURKLEWell, I think that the data is ambiguous. It sort of is a little bit -- I think Stephen captured this wonderfully in his argument by preventing a range of surveys as kind of an it-depends argument. There are people who go on Facebook, and certainly in my studies I've found, who use it beautifully. In other words, they use it to put a toe in the water and then make a friend and then find that they can then expand that friendship to an offline friendship, which is the best possible use, and that's great. I mean, that is the best.
TURKLEBut there's also a lot of use of Facebook that, for example, Marie Burke (sp?) which did a longitudinal study that -- Marie Burke, that Stephen talks a lot about, where Stephen sums it up by saying, you know, the effects depend on what you put in. Like your mom said, you know, you get out what you put in. I think he puts it very well, where if what you do is -- and what a lot of kids do that I've studied, is that they use Facebook to stay in touch with a lot of people and feel validated by a lot of people because that's kind of what the social pressure is to do to put your profile out there and feel validated by a lot of people, get a lot of thumbs up for what you're doing.
TURKLEThat isn't nurturing, that isn't satisfying, and there's a lot of pressure 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, and that...
REHMSherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
REHMAnd as we talk about technology and loneliness, if you'd like, you can go to our website, drshow.org to take what's called the Loneliness Quiz. It was a tool to measure just how lonely you might be, developed by UCLA. And it's a series of 20 questions that all begin how often do you feel. It's the loneliness scale at UCLA. So if you'd like to measure your own sense of togetherness or loneliness, go to drshow.org.
REHMStephen Marche, from your point of view, what role is social media, like Facebook and Twitter and Google +, playing in America's increasing sense of loneliness?
MARCHEWell, you know, as Sherry was sort of pointing out, I think it's actually a very complicated and the research points to an incredibly nuanced reality. I mean, I think it really depends how you use it. I would say that when Zeynep said that it's good for shy people, the research actually -- I mean, Burke's research shows that that's actually not very true. That it's people who already have strong social abilities and strong social networks who tend to flourish on Facebook.
MARCHEAnd, of course, that is why, you know, these surveys that show that Facebook usage, Facebook users have more friends is a correlation-causation issue. I mean, that's what Burke's research, the longitudinal effect of it. That's what it shows. I would just say that, you know, I think what I wanted to get out of this article was to stop thinking, you know, Facebook good, Facebook bad; technology good, technology bad.
MARCHEAnd instead of how do we use this and how can we use it to increase our humanity? How can we use it to increase our sociability? Because, you know, I mean, Yvette Vickers was on Facebook and she was on social media when she died actually. And what she used it for was to connect with fans, you know, groupies of her movies and then go to these, you know, conferences and so on. This network of very shallow, narcissistic connections is not good and not helpful. And there are ways to avoid it.
TUFEKCIWell, for one thing, that kind of connection with fans, I agree, that's very shallow. And that's absolutely not the typical way, though. If you look at the data, what people do with Facebook is they interact intensely with a few people, you know, three, four, five people who are really their close friends and they kind of interact weekly with their larger, broader network, which reflects very much what we do in, you know, our pre-Facebook days.
TUFEKCIWe have a few close friends we interact a lot with and we also interact with them now through social media. But it also allows to keep in touch with a broader range of people with whom you could sometimes interact more deeply.
REHMSherry, you were talking earlier about the number of people with whom you sit in board meetings or go to any kind of situation or even see people at breakfast instead of talking, sort of interacting technologically. What does that mean as far as how we've lost that sense of the importance of personal connection?
TURKLEWell, two things. First I wanted to say that although it may be true that we interact with a small group of people on Facebook and then lesser with the larger group, my research shows the importance, psychologically, of that larger group to how people see themselves. It's called FOMO, fear of missing out. You're interacting with that larger group and you're living a life of performance for that larger group.
REHMDoesn't that take a lot of time?
TURKLEIt takes a lot of time. And with people, what I'm trying to stress is that even if you're not interacting a great deal of time with that larger group, your experience of yourself is that you are putting it on and performing and being a sort of who you want to be and can barely recognize yourself sometimes because you're presenting yourself all the time for these larger groups.
TURKLESo, you know, every survey -- sometimes a survey is useful, but then you have to talk to somebody and say, well, what does it mean to you to be always on, always performing. So that's the first point. But then what it means that we're never where we are is that I think we lose a sense of the importance of conversation. I call it a kind of flight from conversation to connection that we've -- it's as though we think that that the little sips of online connection will add up to one big gulp of real conversation.
REHMYou know, Sherry...
TURKLEAnd they don't.
REHM...I quoted you in a commencement address I gave at Shepherd University last week with that very quote, adding up to little sips of online conversation, adding up to a big gulp. And I so agree with you. Here is a posting on Facebook, Zeynep, and I'd like you to respond.
REHMThis individual says: I am lonely and miserable, but I don't blame Mark Zuckerberg, I blame myself. It's my fault, not some tool or software on the computer that pretends to loop me into friends circles. I have no best friends to confide in, cannot be honest with family. Has Facebook exacerbated the misery? Unequivocally, yes, it has. Watching former peer groups succeed or paint a picture of success and happiness, whether true or not is cause for reflection and a comparison to my own life.
TUFEKCIWell, I think we compared ourselves to other people before Facebook, too. I mean, high school reunions and everything. Now, I really agree with Dr. Turkle that it's not that these technologies don't matter. It's not like they're just any tool and they have no -- I agree with that. But I think things like, just saying that kids these days or teenagers are more performer because of Facebook kind of -- I go back to my own high school years and the length to which I would go sometimes to try to have a certain persona.
TUFEKCII have this distinct memory of reading a book that my peers weren't reading. And I noticed, I was in eighth grade, and this group of kids at eleventh grade were reading. So I carried this book around and I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin's "Dispossessed." I carried this book around that I had finished very visibly for, I think, three months hoping somebody would notice that I, too, was reading this book.
TUFEKCIAnd it was pretty desperate and it did not work. And I'm thinking, maybe that's what they're doing too. They are putting their wishes and desires and who they are and who they want to be, which is always this complicated mix, and they're connecting to people using that. And when I talk to -- I talk a lot to college students. I do a lot of research of that age group and I talk to younger groups as well, middle schoolers.
TUFEKCIAnd what they have told me is, yes, it's changed. For example, there are no such things as a complete blind date anymore. You do have a sense of the person, because you Facebook friend people. That is an important way to get to know them. But they often tell me, isn't this better than just meeting somebody randomly in a smoky bar or someplace where I don't know about them?
TUFEKCISo, in some ways, I think it might allow you to find the people that you're looking for rather than you just happen to be interacting with randomly. And that can be a very positive thing. I agree there's tensions around this kind of transitions, but I don't really see that as a negative.
REHMSteve Marche, what do you think?
MARCHEWell, I think there's actually, you know, Zeynep's absolutely right that this kind of self-display games have been going on since Louis XIV. I mean, this is not -- vanity was not invented with Facebook. But on the other hand, you know, I think of my experience when I moved from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to the city when I was 17, I basically went from being a jock to being a classic scholar overnight.
MARCHEI was able to break from myself. And this, I think, is the consensus that is emerging. It's in Sherry's book, it's Jaron Lanier's book, it's in this new book, "iDisorder," which I've only read the reviews of. But it also is there. That what's new about Facebook, what's new about Twitter and social media generally is its relentlessness, that it never ends. That the game of self-presentation is just constant and the mediation of yourself is this ongoing, continuous activity, which doesn't allow those moments of breaking from yourself.
MARCHEFrom throwing away all your old friends, which is such an important part of living, you know?
REHMSherry, you talk about something called the Goldilocks effect. What is that?
TURKLEWell, the Goldilocks effect is that we have come to a point where we can control our distance from each other by having that distance mediated by the Internet. So, not too close, not too far, just right. People say, for example, a businessman tells me that he no longer has colleagues at the office because he really likes to do stuff on his BlackBerry. He doesn't talk to people. He just takes care of his business, even with the people next door, by doing it online.
TURKLESo I found, we can't get enough of each other if we can have each other just at the distance we want them, not too close, not too far, just right. And it's that sense of controlling our environment that I think is getting us into trouble because relationships are rich and messy and confusing and that's their -- that's good. You know, that's part of what's good. And we've gotten used to a world where we clean them up with technology and I'm worried about that.
TUFEKCIMy research into Facebook says it's very, very messy, especially if you're a teenager because it's not -- or an adult, it's not like you get to have this perfect image and then have it not contradicted because it's not a separate world from this world. You also see these people. If you put a lie there, you're a lot more likely to get caught on it because somebody will notice that's not true. In fact, over Facebook, because it's not a separate world, there's this enormous amount of drama, interaction, the whole human mess that you see.
REHMAnd hurtful in a number of cases.
TUFEKCIAnd can be very hurtful. And I do want to emphasize, a lot of research shows that this is displacing, if anything, because there's 24 hours in the day. What is this displacing all this time we're spending. Most of the time, it's television. And to me, to dive into the sort of mess of humanity through Facebook, Twitter, online, offline, that whole connection is much better than the alternative has been, which was television, which is very alienating and isolating.
REHMWhat about that, Sherry?
TURKLEWell, you know, again, television is what you put into it. I watch television with my family, in a group. The five of us watched it together. We fought over every program. We had opinions. We watched it together. When I was in college, when I was in high school, we watching television as a pact. It was very interactive. I mean, you know, now where there are all kinds of magnificent shows on television, they can be watched together, people talking together.
TURKLEI mean, the media is the context of media. You can't judge a media, you know, as a standalone. So I don't have, you know, I don't think it's simple, like television bad, Facebook good or the other way around.
REHMSherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. I'd like to hear what listeners have to say, what they are seeing and doing and how they are interacting with each other. Let's go to Park City, Utah. Good morning, James, you're on the air.
JAMESGood morning, thank you. You know, they say that if you really want to find out who your friends are, ask them for $1,000. And, you know, when it comes to connection, what we have discovered is that true connection happens between individuals, face to face, whether it's with family members or friends or even groups. What we're discovering is that if we're not willing to be vulnerable and not willing to really open ourselves up, then what kind of a connection do we really have? And -- go ahead.
REHMSteve Marche, do you want to comment?
MARCHEWell, I mean, I would say that one of the major pieces of research that I looked at in my article was the book "Loneliness" by John Cacioppo. And he's very clear that only face-to-face contacts constitutes a biological need of humanity. I mean, he's extreme about pets don't matter. God doesn't matter. You know, certainly online connections don't matter. What matters is that you are in a gregarious community of meaty biological people.
MARCHEAnd the meatspace, as it's sometimes called, that is -- our brains our designed for that. That is a core aspect of our biology. And without that, a part of our humanity is lost.
REHMWhat do you think, Zeynep?
TUFEKCIWell, I keep repeating that the research shows that people who are more socially online also are more social offline. So that kind of interaction leads to more also face to face. And I'm going to disagree with one thing there, though. I'm on the same page in terms of face to face to being the bedrock of sociality. But that does not mean the other things are always inferior. There are times when writing a letter is appropriate, sometimes a phone call is appropriate.
TUFEKCIAnd sometimes that's what's possible. And very often that kind of interaction strengthens the bond, which almost all the time, according to the research, only I think about 20 percent of people have online only friends. Our friends are online and offline. This kind of separation, are we, you know, interacting with face to face instead of offline or online or versus. It's just not true. They...
TUFEKCIThey go together. People who are more social online are more social offline.
TURKLEI would really like to add that it's also -- what Facebook takes away that -- another thing that Facebook takes away that I'm concerned about is a capacity for solitude. We're always connecting. There's a new pressure to always connect. And it turns out that solitude, the restorative capacities of solitude, really are the bedrock for our ability to form relationships. And, you know, now you see people at a red light.
TURKLEYou see people at the check-out line at a supermarket and they look like they're in a panic. You know, they need to connect. And it's a kind of I share, therefore I am culture. And that compulsion to connect is really not good as the foundation for the kinds of friendships where you really get to know another person.
REHMIs it a new kind of addiction, Sherry?
TURKLEWell, I hate to use the word addiction because it sounds too definitive. There is an element of addiction. I prefer to call it a true vulnerability where we can learn to be less vulnerable. We have to learn to be less vulnerable.
REHMSherry Turkle, she is a clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book is titled, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other." More of your calls, your email, your postings on Facebook and Twitter when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go right to the phones, to Austin, Texas. Good morning, Shawn, you're on the air.
SHAWNGood morning. Thank you, Diane. Great show.
SHAWNThe start of the conversation started with a study showing we're having increased loneliness even though we're more connected. I think at the root of that is it wouldn't be fair to discuss that without discussing the change in the definition of connected. I think the study really should be where increased loneliness even though we're really disconnected, as Sherry would say. I think if we were to use the definition of connected even from the '80s or '90s, where this phone call, face to face conversation is completely different than how we would define Facebook connected or online connected.
REHMShawn, that's very interesting because during the break Zeynep and I were talking about the fact that when I was at home with my children, I would spend hours on the phone with friends, you know, even as the kids were out at school or playing in the basement or something like that, talking about very personal things, very deep things. But, Stephen Marche, you might want to address that issue of connecting.
MARCHEWell, I mean, to me the conclusion I come to after all this research or the path that I came to was to understand that a connection is very distinct from a bond, and that Facebook and the telephone and other things are absolutely amazing at producing connections. You know, and I don't think we should dismiss that. I mean, I think it would be ungrateful to -- you know, I had a friend recently who had cancer and we raised money for him using Facebook and it was unbelievable. It was unbelievably effective at that, kickstarter, incredible.
MARCHEI mean, we should not pretend that these are not enormous gifts. However, just as the car can be turned into an ambulance to save lives, there's also consequences to the car generally. And I think one of the things is that if you choose Facebook rather than face to face contacts, if that happens, then increased connection comes with decreased bond.
MARCHEDoes that make sense?
TUFEKCICan I say one thing? I keep repeating this, but the data say that people are not choosing Facebook and displacing face-to-face connections. I mean, if the people were doing that en mass, then I would completely agree, but I look at study after study and it says the opposite. And also the study that he caller referred to, the loneliness among older adults, it's a 45 plus age group. And if you look at the details of that study, you find that the least lonely group among them, it's either equal between internet users and nonusers or people who use email to keep in touch with others, people who use social media to connect with their kids, they're less lonely.
TUFEKCISo even if you are going to say that there's a, you know, trend towards loneliness, which I keep saying that suburbanization, commutes, television, those are very important part of the story. Social media is, from every part of research I see and in my own experience, people pushing back against that to connect with people.
REHMStephen, you go into a very interesting area in your article about research on the effects of the brain regarding loneliness. Can you talk about that?
MARCHEWell, it's not just the brain. It's the physical costs of loneliness which are pretty staggering. I mean, Cacioppo does this unbelievable job of working out what all the consequences of loneliness are. You know, you're less likely to survive heart surgery. The way that your body -- the white cells in your body transcribe DNA is different for lonely people than not lonely people. So it has a -- when you're lonely, your whole body is lonely down to the very DNA in your system. The effects of lonely -- I mean, I could go on. It affects the way you inflame. It affects inflammation rates. Loneliness is not a human condition. We're not supposed to be lonely. We're supposed to be social. Our brains are constructed to be social animals.
REHMBut at the same time, there are those who are more comfortable alone than with other people. Sherry Turkle.
TURKLEYes. But, you know, I mean, they aspire. One of the quotes that I found most poignant in my studies of kids and, I mean, teenagers and Facebook is a young man who said to me, someday, someday, but certainly not now -- I think he was afraid I might actually talk to him more. He said, someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation.
TURKLEAnd so when I hear these studies about, you know, people on Facebook are, you know, less lonely, there's something they're not getting as they're reaching out on Facebook. There's something that they know that they're not learning to do, which has to do with not having the sips, but having the gulps, with the give and take of negotiation, layers of complexity, the give and take of conversation. And I think that, you know, keeping that in mind as we, you know, give Facebook its due. I mean, give Facebook its due. It's not a matter of saying it's bad. It's a matter of sort of putting it in its place. And I think we want technology to do the work that conversation used to do. And I think it doesn't.
TUFEKCII mean, that's a sad story if that kid feels that way, but I have a lot of anecdotes that I've heard over the years. And in my own experience too, it's exactly the opposite where people, for example, you could be a gay teenager in a rural area and not have anybody to talk to or you could just be a little quirky or you could just not get along with the people you happen to be in the same neighborhood with. And now using these tools you can find the very people that you can actually connect much deeper. And very often, again, the data show and I have this experience again and again, once you find the right people, because connection, that kind of bond is not just about random people, it's about the people you can bond with.
REHMBut isn't that pretty difficult to find just the right people?
TUFEKCIIt's very difficult, but I think it's easier now that we have more tools. As I said, if you're a gay teenager in a rural area and you're feeling like nobody understands you, there is a world out there that you can reach out to.
REHMWhat about that, Sherry?
TURKLEI think that's great. I mean, I think that this is where I think we tend to talk past each other because that's great. That's what Facebook should be for. It should be finding the right people to then have a conversation with. And there's nothing about anything I'm saying that would not make that great.
TUFEKCIAnd I would agree. And what I'm saying is that the research shows people then do go ahead and have those conversations. I'm not disagreeing that for some people, you know, they might disappear into say an online game or there might be some groups for which this has a negative effect. But overall on average that kind of connection is leading to or is accompanied by also a lot of face to face connection. It's creating a hunger for people that I think is a positive thing.
REHMStephen Marche, tell us about the connection you see between social media usage and narcissism.
MARCHEWell, this is a very strong connection that's really not very negotiable. I mean, a host of studies show that narcissism -- that Facebook is a narcissistic activity, that they correlate quite strongly, that people who are narcissistic tend to spend more time on Facebook and that they tend to be more common on Facebook than outside. That is the big question at the end of this piece that I don't have an answer to what that means.
MARCHEI mean, there is some research that shows that people who are narcissistic when they're young tend to be narcissistic when they're old. I mean, I would also that narcissism is rising everywhere. I mean, if you want proof of the rise of narcissism, just turn on your television at any given moment, right? So what does that mean? I have to say I don't know, although I fear it.
TURKLEI make a different connection between narcissism and social media which is has to do with the aesthetic of I share, therefore I am, which is part of our new kind of culture that our new -- it used to be we did I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now we're in a world where it's I want to have a feeling, I need to send text. That's kind of our new way of constituting a self. And that is essentially a narcissistic position.
TURKLEThat is the root of how teenagers are growing up now, where you turn to another person to help constitute the self. And with that as the basis, Facebook doesn't become the cause. I mean, it's not making Facebook the villain here, but it becomes the enabler, Facebook, Twitter, Tweeting, it becomes the enabler of this kind of new way of constituting the self which is a narcissistic position.
REHMBut how is that...
REHM...different, Zeynep, from picking up the telephone?
TUFEKCIWell, that's what I would argue. I would say that turning to other people to constitute ourselves as teenagers, I think...
TUFEKCIOr as adults. But I think especially in adolescence, that's a very key dynamic. I don't think the kids these days are that different from any other generation. I do agree this kind of publicity that comes with being in these network environments has a lot of tensions that the youngsters are trying to negotiate, and that's an issue. But also to go back to the question that, you know, Facebook is a narcissistic activity, what the studies show is that there are some people who are more into narcissism and they are also more into narcissism online, which goes back to my point that the online world and offline world are not really that separate.
TUFEKCIIt's just that if you're like into extroversion or if you're into a lot of display offline, you tend to be that way on Facebook too. It doesn't show anything else besides that. It just says that's all there is.
REHMTo Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Marilee.
MARILEEGood morning. I have two things I wanted to bring up. I'm a recently retired social worker and what I saw out there was the social media, we don't have the physical contact that we used to have. When you look at a person, you can see their demeanor and their attitude and that kind of thing. When you talk with a person, you can hear the stress and tension in their voice. And you can have physical contact with them.
MARILEEAnd the second point is that social media pretty much leaves out a segment of our population, older people who have arthritis or some people with disabilities who cannot type, people who can't afford computers or internet access, the blind for whom Facebook is really difficult. And when you leave out that physical contact there, I found that people are very isolated and you really need that touch of another human being and you can't get that through social media.
MARCHEWell, I mean, this is the kind of -- this is the sort of imputes for me writing this piece is that that is very real. You know, I mean, I would say that as I said at the beginning it really depends on how you use Facebook. I mean, if you use it to set up face to face connections, then it decreases loneliness. The question is how many people are using it that way. And I think the other -- like, if you just spend hours and hours on Facebook going over, you know, ex-girlfriends and how they've succeeded in their lives, that will make you miserable.
MARCHEI mean, I would say that my reason for writing this piece is people exactly like your caller, people on the frontlines of social work and psychiatry and nurses and doctors who feel that this is a reality with which they are trying to deal. And I'm just trying to understand it.
REHMStephen Marche of the Atlantic magazine, his cover story on this very issue "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" appears in the current issue. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Syracuse, N.Y. Good morning, Jeffrey.
JEFFREYAs I've been listening to this I am about to have a reunion and in the early '60s in college we were to read David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" and Slater's "The Pursuit of Loneliness." And they were dealing with many of these same issues, although on a smaller scale, the suburban flight. And Slater's book talking about how marketing and so forth, it gives us the sense that we want to make our own home a fortress that has in it everything that we need and we just need to slip into the garage and go to the store and back and we don't have contact.
JEFFREYAnd David Riesman was on the idea that the population boom was coming along, there are more of us. We're actually in many ways living closer together, but we're really desperate because there were more media choices, even television, more clubs. As you got more people, you can get more critical mass of people to propose and a certain type of group and inhabit that group, et cetera. And so, you know, 50 years ago, this is a big thing, I went to the Maxwell School of Syracuse and we were really immersed in this as a big problem then. And I wonder -- I presume that your participants are familiar with these books.
REHMHow is it different now?
TURKLEWell, I'm a student of David Riesman's, which is one of the reasons I'm so passionate about this work. And one of the things I learned from David was something that I translate into if you don't know how to be alone, you'll only know how to be lonely. This focus on the capacity for solitude as the basis for being able to reach out and be in a community.
TURKLEAnd his feeling that Americans were losing the capacity for solitude and therefore couldn't be in a community, it's paradoxical, but you have to be able to be content with yourself in order to then reach out and be with others. And this constant texting, validation, profiling, checking, making sure it's all right, checking in, is, in my work certainly among young people, creating what I'm calling this I share, therefore I am, an over -- what he would call an over, you know, kind of keeping up with the Jones'...
TURKLE...fear of missing out...
TURKLE...over reliance that paradoxically perhaps is eroding that capacity. Great question.
REHMSherry Turkle, clinical psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zeynep Tufekci, professor at the University of North Carolina, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Stephen Marche, he's author and columnist at both the Atlantic and Esquire magazines. His cover story appears in the May, 2012 issue of the Atlantic. Thanks to all of you. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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