Social Media’s Greatest Accomplishment: Loneliness
In a society bound by endless platforms for social connection the idea of pervasive loneliness is startling. For a species that both thrives and survives via communication social media appears to be the golden ticket to an improved social and psychological growth. However, social media falls short in playing the vital role of co-constructing the social reality we need. The prevalence of social media has led not to the deep, unrestrained connectivity it purports, but to widespread feelings of loneliness.This ironic phenomenon is best delineated by analysing the core tenets of communication theory. We are able to clearly see the misguided rational of social media by utilizing the theoretical approaches of relational, constructivist, phenomenological and dialogic theories in order to understand social media’s inability to provide a space where authentic dialogue can occur paralyzing the co-construction of a viable social reality.
Over the last decade social media usage has moved from the margins of society into the mainstream. In 2018 77% of the US population used some form of social media; a significant jump from 10% utilization in 2008 (statista.com, 2018). Coupled with a surge in usage came the multiplication of sites. What began with blogs and Myspace now encompasses thousands of platforms; a few hundred of these boasting significant usage. This remarkable hyper leap has resulted in innumerable studies on social media’s usage and its effects.
Many of these studies show the distribution of demographics between platforms and frequency of use within those. A 2018 Pew study showed that social media use is most prevalent among the those 18-29 years old with 88% reporting some kind of social media usage (Smith, Anderson, pewinternet.org, 2018). This statistic drops significantly with only 78% reporting usage in the 30-49 demographic with subsequent drops in percentage for each progressively older demographic (Smith, Anderson, pewinternet.org, 2018). A closer look shows us that this isn’t passive use; “Fully 74% of Facebook users say they visit the site daily, with around half (51%) saying they do several times a day...All told, a majority of Snapchat (63%) and Instagram (60%) users indicate that they visit these platforms on a daily basis (Smith, Anderson, pewinternet.org, 2018). The numbers only get more arresting: “In addition to adopting Snapchat and Instagram at high rates, the youngest adults also stand out in the frequency with which they use these two platforms. Some 82% of Snapchat users ages 18 to 24 say they use the platform daily, with 71% indicating that they use it multiple times per day. Similarly, 81% of Instagram users in this age group visit the platform on daily basis, with 55% reporting that they do so several times per day” (Smith, Anderson, pewinternet.org, 2018).
Usage statistics aren’t the only studies to emerge over the course of the last decade as social, psychological and physiological studies have looked at the effects of such heavy and prevalent social media usage. A number of these studies demonstrate the astonishing connection between heavy social media usage and loneliness. While most studies focus on the loneliness of the elderly a meta-analysis by “Dr. Holt-Lunstad, who with colleagues has analyzed 70 studies encompassing 3.4 million people, said that the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, then again in the oldest old” (Brody, nytimes.com, 2018). A study from Britain's Office for National Statistics found that 10% of people 16 to 24 reported being “always or often” lonely (Coughlan, bbc.com, 2018). This statistic was more than three times higher than that reported for the 65 and older crowd; the population most commonly targeted for loneliness research. American corporation Cigna concluded similar results in a recent study that showed: “the loneliness epidemic is so serious in the US that most American adults are considered lonely, with younger Generation Z and millennial Americans being the most lonely” (Loria, Businessinsider.com, 2018). This study however took their findings a step further stating: “Recent research has found that this has such a significant effect on mortality rates that loneliness could be considered a public health threat that's more harmful than obesity and about as bad as smoking” (Loria, Businessinsider.com, 2018). Loneliness has become so ubiquitous in American life it has reached epidemic proportions with effects as harmful as smoking.
It doesn’t take a statistician to link the above data. However, there is some cognitive dissonance between the similar effect of Facebook usage and smoking a cigarette. Communication theory provides a concrete link between the facade that social media professes to connect you and the actual pervasive feelings of loneliness it evokes.
The foundational theory of Communication as Relationality very clearly asserts that communication is not simply the process of transferring information, but the process of relating (Shepherd, St. John, & Striphas, 2006). Condit aptly states that “communication constitutes relationships...everything that exists is in itself nothing more than a particularly and perspective, constituted set of relationships” (Shepard, et al, p 4). Plainly, communication creates relationships and relationships constitute everything. “There are no clear boundaries, no thing (no star) that has a discrete existence separate from the web of relationships of all to all” (Shepard et al, p 4). Communication enables us to exist in partnership with greater existence. Without communication we fall further and further from existence. Similarly, Katherine Miller’s Communication as Constructive theory provides a necessary counterpoint to this in our understanding of social media’s counter intuitive productions. Miller asserts that we construct our social reality through communication. One cannot co-construct themselves. As humans we need another to relationally co-construct our world and ourselves.
Social media seems to inhibit rather than facilitate the process of co-construction. The problem arises in both the ability to relate and the opportunity to construct. The relational channels are diluted. A social media post is one person transmitting to hundreds or even thousands of recipients. Conversely, most individuals are receiving hundreds or thousands of transmissions with each visit to a platform. This dilutes the transmission. A diluted transmission results in less meaningful communication. This short changes the potential strength of possible structures for construction and relation. Simultaneously, the illusion of relating to large groups of people binds us to the faulty infrastructure these weak communications are building.
We can further understand this phenomena through Leslie Baxter’s Communication as Dialogue theory. She states that “for Bakhtin (1984a), the essence of dialogue is the simultaneous differentiation from, yet fusion with, another. Parties form a unity in conversation but only through maintaining two distinct voices” (Shepherd, et al, p 101). In this theory conversation is key. However, social media limits our ability to have a conversation in a multitude of ways. Character limits imposed by many of the major platforms limit one’s ability to effectively engage in conversation. This rudimentary restriction provides a strong basis for the sites penchant for limiting dialogue and obscuring relational co-constructing of affable social realities. Another pivotal aspect to this theory is “the unique contribution of a dialogic view is an articulation of the generative mechanism for meaning-making process: the interplay of different, often opposing, voices” (Shepard, et al p 105). Social media inherently directs us to like and follow those who share a similar viewpoint to our own. Often those, even family or close friends, are ‘unfriended’ if their views differ too greatly from our own. In this our feeds become a monologue of similarity. Baxter argues that without opposing views we are self limiting our ability to grow and become more self while simultaneously limiting the construction of self, other and the relationship between. Social media removes the ability to construct a solid dialogue and then directs us to a monologue of similarity severely limiting every facet of the construction of social reality.
Phenomenology is one of the core principles of communication theory. This theory views communication as the intentional analysis of everyday experience from the view of self and others (Griffin, Ledbetter, & Sparks, 2015, p 45). On the surface it is the theory that should articulate why social media is such a powerful force for communication and community building. However, as previously discussed the limiting factors of social media cause this ideal to fall flat.
Autoethnography is a subset of the phenomenological discipline. In it we “see people enacting the process of how to live” (Shepard, et al, p 118). As the relational, constructive and dialogic theories above demonstrated we are inhibited from developing the communication necessary via social media to achieve this end. Our transmission is diluted, our reception diluted, and our means by which to transmit limited. We are not able to fully enact or construct thus limiting our abilities to live out our relational lives. Autoethnography intensifies the dialogic assertion of the monologue of similarity when Bochner states: “communication theory should help us devictimize and de-stigmatize people and experiences on the margins by providing opportunities to bear witness to autoethnographic stories and other narratives” (Shepard, et al, p 120). This statement highlights one of social media’s most acute short comings. We are stopped far short of sharing in other’s authentic stories. Perfectly curated social media presences, coupled with the stilted ability to construct a cohesive and complete narrative, leads users to feel increase stigmatization and isolation from even those they may have shared a deep relational bond with outside of social media. We are at every turn increasing the relational divide while simultaneously limiting our ability to construct over or around it, resulting in the widespread feelings of loneliness.
On the surface social media presents itself as the cure all for loneliness. However, through limiting the medium and enabling diluted transmissions and admissions it grandly misses the mark. Yet, we persist in its use. We still scroll and search hoping for the magic bullet to revert this cycle and enable us to connect and construct our social reality on social media. As we do loneliness, depression and suicide continue to rise in our country. We fall further from the interactions that help spurn relationality and social construction. We keep looking for the pot of gold, but fail to see the cycle of neglect social media produces. Awareness of social media’s downfall must be more widespread. Without information and awareness future generations will continue this negative feedback loop leaving them lost and searching for themselves, others and the beauty in a relationally constructed social reality.
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