COLUMN: Is social media making us lonely?


Picture this: you go out to dinner with a group of your friends.

You get stuck nursing your drink and staring around the room because everyone at the table is paying attention to their phones instead of each other.

Chances are, this has happened to you more than once.

In 2018, we have countless ways to interact with each other. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook are just a few of the social media platforms that millions of people use every day. With the constant tweeting, snapping and posting, we get to see more of other people's lives than ever before.

So, why are we so lonely?

According to Cigna Health Insurance's 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index, 46 percent of Americans feel lonely sometimes or always. Cigna surveyed 20,000 Americans aged 18 and older using UCLA's 20-question Loneliness Scale. A score of 43 or higher on the scale is considered lonely. America's national average loneliness score is 44.

Loneliness is worst among young people. In the survey, Generation Zers (those aged 18-22) scored an average of 48.3 on the Loneliness Scale. The scores gradually get lower as the ages of people being surveyed increases. Baby Boomers (those aged 52-71) scored an average of 42.4, and the Greatest Generation (ages 72+) scored an average of 38.6.

It might not be a coincidence that young people are so much lonelier and also using social media far more than older generations. 69 percent of Gen Zers reported feeling like the people around them aren't "really with them," while a little more than 40 percent of the Greatest Generation reported feeling that way. Comparatively, the Pew Research Center reported that 88 percent of people ages 18-29 regularly use any form of social media, and 37 percent of people aged 65 and older regularly use social media.

In the Cigna study, young people regularly reported feeling shy, left out, alone and like no one really knows them very well. They were far less likely than older generations to report feeling outgoing, close to people, and like they are apart of a group of friends. The internet has provided us with millions of resources and social outlets that are supposed to bring people closer together-- yet the General Social Survey found that the number of Americans who feel that they have no close friends has tripled since 1985. 

Social media and technology may not be the only reasons we feel so lonely, but they've completely changed the way we live our day-to-day lives and interact with each other. 30 years ago, if you wanted to talk to someone, you called them on the phone, or better yet, went over to their house. Now, if you want to talk to someone, you can text them. Or DM them. Or Snapchat them. There are countless ways to avoid face-to-face interaction, and for some reason, more and more people would rather do that.

When I was a little kid, my friends and I had no problem picking up the landline and calling our friends' houses to ask their parents if they were home. We also regularly went over to each others' houses and knocked on the front door. Now, we text each other "I'm here," when we pick each other up. 

A lot of my friends get anxious at the thought of having to make a phone call to anyone, from the doctor to a pizza place. Of course, they almost never have to, because there are more online booking and ordering services being created all the time. It seems like technology is constantly giving us more ways to avoid other human beings.

Growing up, my friends and I always played with Barbies. I spent hours alone in my room creating wildly intricate scenarios for my dolls, and I could spend even more time playing with Barbies with my friends. Now Barbie has a Youtube channel, where an animated Barbie talks in a vlog-style to 4.5 million subscribers. 

Although I support the fact that the platform is used to talk to young children about important issues like feeling sad and trying to be a good person, the whole idea worries me. Is this online animated version of Barbie replacing the physical doll children can hold in their hands? Not only does that completely cut out the social aspect of Barbie dolls-- where's the creativity and imagination in watching a Youtube video?

At restaurants, I see less kids coloring and drawing while they sit with their families, and more kids zoned out watching or playing something on a tablet or phone. Some restaurants have even started providing small video game screens for the tables while people wait. 

There's no doubting the good of technology and social media. Never before have we been so accessible to other people. However, we've also never been so lonely.