Briefly Noted: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely, Distracted, and Narcissistic?

by Bruce Ashford

In his recent article in The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” Stephen Marche suggests that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media might actually be making us more lonely (and more narcissistic, to boot).  Marche argues, “Social Media–from Facebook to Twitter–have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggest that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)–and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill. A report on what the epidemic of loneliness is doing to our souls and our society.” (p. 60)

Marche begins with the story of the death of a former B-movie star whose dead body was not discovered in her house until a year after her death (even though she had thousands of Facebook “friends”) in order to illustrate the ironic effects of Facebook on our souls and society. For Marche greater social media “connection” actually leads to greater “disconnection.” The public and shared nature of Facebook ironically can turn people more in on themselves.

He states, “We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.” (p. 62)

Marche seeks to buttress his claims with recent findings from some sociological and neurological studies. For instance he cites a 2005 study of Dutch twins, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and a 2010 AARP survey to argue that loneliness is on the rise in America. More telling, perhaps, are the numbers of professional “friends” that our country now demands. A 2010 paper by Ronal Dworkin observed the trend: in the late 1940s the US had 2,500 clinical psychologists and 500 marriage/family therapists whereas by 2010 there were 192,000 clinical social-workers, 400,000 non-clinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105, 000 mental-health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors . . . and there are more (p. 64).

Loneliness, however, is an American ideal in some ways. Marche argues the founding of America grew out of the Pilgrims search for independence. “Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence . . .” (p. 64). Now, however, that loneliness is more narcissistic: “Today, the one common feature in American secular culture is its celebration of the self that breaks away from the constrictions of the family and the state, and, in its greatest expressions, from all limits entirely.” (p. 64)

Facebook is not the first bit of technology to test our level of isolation or loneliness. The question, for Marche, is whether on balance Facebook will actually help gather or separate people: will it deliver on its promise to connect more people; how (truly) social is the social network? This raises the more fundamental question: “Does the Internet make people lonely, or are lonely people more attracted to the Internet?” (p. 66) Moira Burke, hired by Facebook as a data scientist, “concludes that the effect of Facebook is what you bring to it.” (p. 66) Likewise, John Cacioppo (Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, U. of Chicago) argues that Facebook is a tool: “For the most part, Facebook doesn’t destroy friendships–but it doesn’t create them either.” (p. 68) So, for almost everyone the effect of Facebook on one’s mind and soul is the result of their decision. For most, the decision goes in hand with the implied benefits: “The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society. . .” (p. 68).

Thus, his conclusion: “The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude. The new isolation is not the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic . . . Facebook’s isolation is a grind.” (p. 69)

And again, “Nostalgia for the good old days of disconnection would not just be pointless, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful. But the very magic of the new machines, the efficiency and elegance with which they serve us, obscures what isn’t being served: everything that matters. What Facebook has revealed about human nature–and this is not a minor revelation–is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.” (p. 69, emphasis added)

In response to Marche’s article, here are a two brief thoughts. First, social media (like other technological advances) are not inherently good or bad. They can be used well or badly, toward better or worse ends. My experience is that Facebook and Twitter have helped me reconnect with high school and college friends that I might otherwise have never found, and has enabled me to have a little glimpse into their lives, and one venue for conversing with them.

Second, I agree with Marche’s suggestions about loneliness and narcissism, but also think that social media can make us more distracted and less reflective. We find it difficult to read, to reflect, to pray, or to do anything else that requires sustained attention, precisely because we are assaulted by emails, text messages, tweets, and Facebook updates. We have got to find some way to carve out time in our lives for deeply human activities such as reading, contemplation, prayer, and conversation.

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