Is Social Media Making People More Lonely and Anxious?

I came across this excellent video today (on Facebook of all places!) because so many people in my social network were sharing it once. It's always interesting to witness a YouTube viral sensation like this suddenly emerge and then see it everywhere you look online for a few days. I highly recommend watching the video (if you haven't already seen it), it's called "Look Up" (from your smartphone) and it tells a beautiful story through hard-hitting spoken word of how authentic connection and community is being diminished by the apparent lack of emotional intelligence in our technological society.

It's not a secret anymore that the anticipation of someone we know liking our photos on Facebook and the constant buzz of new messages and updates on our smartphones is highly addictive. Each new like, tweet or push notification buzz gives us an injection of dopamine in our brains that can trap us in compulsive feedback loops and create a constant desire to share and promote ourselves online.

The result of this mobile revolution is a new dis-ease in the privileged world: status anxiety and the need to validate our existence by sharing it on social networks.

Fortunately, by recognizing the problem we can start to control and overcome it. We can still thrive in this new digital landscape and have fun sharing with our friends online as long as we also make the time to regularly spend quality time with our close friends and family while also making the effort to be meaningfully involved in our local communities.

The irony of the technological transformation going on in our society is that it is making many people more anti-social and distracted at exactly the time when focused creativity, social leadership and emotional intelligence are the skills most heavily compensated in the economy. In today's digital economy, robots can do the repetitive stuff but people are still desperately needed to sell, influence, tell stories, engage, lead and connect everyone together.

Sociological research shows we are basically incapable of having a meaningful social circle larger than 150 people. This is known as Dunbar's Number. Yet, most of us have 3-5 times that number of people on Facebook. It's great to have a large network of acquaintances and business contacts, but to stay happy and meaningfully connected we need to cultivate a tight inner circle, with which we can comfortably talk about our problems and feelings.

Why We Need A Community That Supports Us

In my opinion, the single most important factor for success and happiness in life is having a strong community that we support and it supports us back.

I have lived in both developed countries like United States and Canada and developing nations like Thailand, Costa Rica and Chile. There is a huge difference instantly felt in the sense of community between developed and developing countries. In poorer countries, people earn much less money and have less economic security so they are much more dependent on their family for survival. This makes family very important and multiple generations of a family often live under the same roof because there is no other option.

In contrast, in Canada or the United States the individualistic ideal is to be independent of your family and able to support yourself -- which is not necessarily a bad thing because it creates enormous freedom -- but it can cause incredible alienation and loneliness if we don't take the time and effort to cultivate strong relationships and engage in our community.

The (often) superficial relationships we have through work and social media are not an effective substitute for face-to-face connections. We absolutely need people in our lives who we can feel vulnerable around and share our deepest emotions without fear of judgement.

The Innovation of Loneliness?

I also recommend you watch this excellent animated video on the Innovation of Loneliness through online social networks. It makes the excellent point that on social media we are creating and self-editing our identity to give a certain kind of impression to other people. We all do it. Whereas, a face-to-face conversation is more fluid and natural because we can't so easily craft and self-edit our identity.

I believe that part of the reason for much of the loneliness and alienation in our society is that we are schooled to be competitive and status seeking. Yet, this creates a race to nowhere because the "goal posts" of status are always changing in a consumer society. There is never any point of absolute success, wealth or status, so the cycle of consumption and the pursuit of happiness continues relentlessly in an unstoppable loop of self-destruction.

It's important to recognize these tendencies so we can start to overcome them and enjoy the simple things that make our lives meaningful such as loving, laughing and caring for our friends and family. If you want to explore this dynamic of status anxiety deeper, watch Alain de Bottom's thought-provoking documentary Status Anxiety.