Recent research from the University of the Bloody Obvious, or in this case the University of Pittsburgh, has warned that social media is making us feel lonely. Well, what a breakthrough. Who knew that perusing 10, 20 or even 30 riotous Facebook pictures of a colleague’s Saturday night house party – to which you definitely weren’t invited – causes Sunday-long existential angst? Or that Instagram updates of neatly cropped, flatteringly filtered friendship squads leave most onlookers feeling relatively chumless?
Who spotted that Twitter connects people, until a minuscule difference of opinion occurs, about Brexit or the NHS (always, always the bloody NHS) when they’re pruned from one’s ether? We all did. In fact, the modern phenomenon of “digital detoxes” and “going off-grid” is largely a reaction to how sodding miserable it makes us to have everyone’s synthetically staged happiness thrust in our faces.
Nevertheless, researchers at Pittsburgh studied 1,787 adults aged 19 to 32 over the use of 11 social media sites: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google Plus, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Vine and LinkedIn.
I’ll suspend disbelief for a moment that anyone on LinkedIn is ever allowed to be lonely. Its entire modus operandi is haranguing you to re-connect with distant acquaintances who dry-humped you after a regional sales prize-giving in 2003. Or that Pinterest users crave actual breathing social contact when we all know they prefer to sit alone, waiting for death, in a room that smells of guinea pig bedding, pinning endless photos of Audrey Hepburn to a virtual scrapbook.
But regardless of these quibbles, researchers found that people who visited all of these 11 sites more than 58 times per week were three times more likely to experience loneliness than those who went online less than nine times per week.
I wish “58 visits per week” felt like a lot, but, being very honest, for large swathes of the British population, myself included, 58 scans through Twitter is merely “me, this morning, discussing the Channel 5 show Cruising with Jane MacDonald”. A play around with Twitter combined with some Instagram snooping and my WhatsApp groups make for a rip-roaring day filled with thrills, intrigue and gossip, without actually moving anywhere further than the toilet and fridge. And that’s only one manoeuvre less than being an Exceptional Risk Category A prisoner.
“We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together,” says lead scientist Professor Brian Primack, from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for.”
And this is perhaps one of our greatest modern dilemmas: how social media “seems”. It seems to keep us cerebrally busy. It helps us build a personal brand. It catapults us into the epicentre of everyday friendship dramas. It never ever lets us be truly alone.
In fact it seems to have made all the vital tenets of human existence simply much zingier. But as Morrissey once said, in a time of second-class stamps and meeting through the NME small ads, “If you’re so very entertaining, why are you on your own tonight?” It’s a line with even more relevance today.
All of us who lived before social media, the great unifier, know the things we have lost. Pre Facebook, that pernicious “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out) which now blights our weekends was minimal. It was there, yes, but not assaulting us to the point of depression.
All Mother’s Day “look at my kin” attention seeking was distinctly subdued too. No one’s perfect Christmas was broadcast on Periscope. Pre-Reddit, pre-Instagram, finding someone to chat to about culture, music, politics involved finding clean clothes, taking a bus somewhere and dealing with a lot of people in a pub or church hall.
More impromptu pub goings, pizza nights and pop-arounds happened. I saw more people I didn’t care about, but I saw more human beings nevertheless. Crucially, I had more of a real sense how my friends were actually “doing”. It’s often struck me that social media is full of lonely, sad people doing a brilliant job of sounding OK and perfectly fine people hoovering up everyone’s attention via faking being sad.
Of course, there is a huge element of “I remember when all this was fields” about any rumination on the internet. It will be for the younger generations to rise up and rebel against constant connectivity. The most enlightened types by 2050, I think, will be humans who can flip between constant media stimulation and digital detox without clinging and craving. I have little hope of this happening soon.
A constant cause of argument among the extended Dent family right now is the lip-syncing-based social network Music.ly. This connects children via the sharing of pouting, preening six-second clips, performed in the squeaky manner of one of Alvin’s Chipmunks. Hearts are doled out in mutual admiration.
All childhood loneliness is banished, replaced by constant, never-ending attention and the quest for followers, even fame. It is, roughly speaking, the Japanese knotweed of kids’ social media: invasive, harmful and a thorough nuisance. But as I say, I remember when all this was fields.