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Isn’t the internet awesome? We use it for work, entertainment, socializing and as a scapegoat for all our problems. Not only does the web prevent us from getting any serious work done, it also kills our social lives and replaces it with likes and shares.

My father in-law recently started using the internet. He has spent almost six decades of his live happily offline and now, after just three weeks of having high speed broadband he’s already complaining that he doesn’t read books anymore. Blaming the internet has become a popular sport for both young and old, not just relating to our media consumption, but especially when it comes to our social lives.

In May 2010, the Mental Health Foundation released a report called The Lonely Society. They found that 53% of 18-34-year-olds had experienced depressions due to loneliness. Nearly a third of the young people also said they spent far too much time communicating online and not enough face to face.

Most of us make the connection without being prompted: it must be the net and Social Media which makes people lonely. Platforms like Facebook make people depressed because they can’t keep up with the “popularity contest”. Looking at photos of other people’s holidays, cars and kids may make less fortunate people feel like underachievers and failures.

According to psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, online communication in general and smartphones in particular are among “the most significant contributing factor to society’s growing physical estrangement”. People are less physically and socially present. Everyone’s zoned out in their own private space with ear-buds and their private glowing rectangle.

Add to this the findings of another study that “loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”, and you start to wonder whether to leave the internet and never look back.

Loneliness Is Not A Matter Of Exterior Conditions

For many years psychologists have tried to pin down the factors that create loneliness, but they all only apply temporarily and under certain circumstances. For example, people who are married are generally less lonely than non-married people, but only if their spouses are confidants. If the spouse is not considered a confidant, marriage can even increase loneliness.

Similarly, a 1990 German study tried to link people’s religious feelings to symptoms of loneliness. Some people who believed in God were less lonely than others, but it depended on whether their idea of God was positive enough. The mere belief in God, however, was found to be relatively independent of loneliness.

John Cacioppo, considered by some the world’s expert on loneliness, wrote in his landmark 2008 book Loneliness:

Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need […] but surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.

While it’s interesting enough that he links instant messaging to whispering prayers, Cacioppo also admits that Social Media can both lead to more integration and isolation, depending on how we use it. Are we passively consuming or are we actively contributing? Does our social engagement consist of simply clicking a button, or do we use these tools to organize meetings and collaborate creatively?

Loneliness In Outer Space

While for each study which claims that Facebook makes people more lonely, there is one that states the opposite — the real problem here is one of coming to terms with the social aspects of digital dualism. It’s not by definition less “real” to engage in meaningful conversation online. People do not always automatically feel more connected just by literally rubbing shoulders with a big crowd of people.

There’s probably no better way to illustrate this than to look at the behavior of astronauts. They live and work together, far away from home and their families in a tiny cramped space for months on end. This can make them feel both crowded and lonely at the same time. Chris Hadfield, astronaut on the International Space Station and prolific tweeter puts it like this:

In the centre of every big city in the world, surrounded by noise and teeming millions of people, are lonely people. Loneliness is not so much where you are, but instead is your state of mind. On Station with the world in our window, people on the radio, family just a phone call away, and other crew members to chat with, plus a full plate of experiments and work to do, loneliness is no more of a problem than it is everywhere else.

It’s no secret that in modern society, we often use technology to physically isolate ourselves. Whether it’s the ear-buds, the smartphone or even the time-tested method of reading a book on a subway, aren’t we all a little bit like astronauts, orbiting in our own private space stations around our daily schedules?

In other words, if someone who sits in a tiny space crammed with technology, circling the earth every 90 minutes 350km above our heads doesn’t feel disconnected and lonely, how can we blame gadgets and software for our loneliness?

Maybe we should not give up on ourselves that easily, and instead of looking for reasons why we aren’t happy just start living the life we want to live, one step at a time.

UPDATE:

img: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by william.n
sources: Guardian, Atlantic, CSA