Throughout the last couple of decades, our ability to connect with people around the globe has exploded. Initially, the internet allowed us to chat, join newsgroups, or email anyone in the world. The invention of cellphones allowed us to talk to people when we were away from our desks and outside of our homes.
Then, social networks allowed us to connect with our neighbors, childhood pals, college buddies, and co-workers with a click of a button. Finally, smartphones made it easier than ever to connect with anyone we wanted around the clock.
So you'd think we'd be feeling good about our social lives, right? After all, never in the history of the universe has communicating with people been so simple and accessible.
Unfortunately, however, the internet hasn't helped us feel more connected with anyone. Studies show almost half of us feel lonely and isolated. Here's why we're feeling less connected than ever during the digital age:
1. Our relationships have grown more superficial.
You can't form a meaningful relationship with someone unless you talk about real issues and share real problems. But that's not what happens on social media.
There's a lot of pressure to make your life look better than it really is on social media. So rather than share what's really going on, you're more likely to talk about your latest accomplishment, awesome vacation, or best meal.
The need to keep up the façade that everything is perfect often spills over into real life and keeps relationships superficial. Without meaningful connections, it's possible to feel lonely even when you're surrounded by people.
2. Screen time interferes with our ability to read social cues.
We know that screen time interferes with kids' abilities to read social cues. There's even a study that found that kids get better at reading other people's emotions after just five days away from their digital devices.
It's likely that screen time takes a toll on adults' social intelligence too. After all, communicating with emojis is much different than communicating face-to-face.
You can tell a lot about what someone is thinking and feeling if you can read their facial cues and non-verbal gestures. But you won't get that if your face is buried behind your screen or if you've spent so much time using your digital devices that you've dulled your ability to read people.
3. The emphasis is on the quantity of relationships, not quality.
The average Facebook user has 338 friends. But clearly, having hundreds of friends on social media doesn't make you feel less lonely.
In fact, some studies show the more connections you have, the more stressed out you're likely to be. This is partly due to the fact that you probably don't communicate with your grandmother in the same way you talk to your former college buddies.
It's not the quantity of relationships that matters--it's the quality. Having five real friends is better for your mental health than having 500 social media connections.
4. Smartphone addiction interferes with face-to-face interactions.
How many times have you looked around at a restaurant to see families or partners ignoring one another because they're staring at their smartphones? And how many times have you been talking to someone who responds to a text message or email when you're in mid-sentence?
Studies show people check their phones, on average, between 35 and 74 times per day. Younger people are more likely to check their phones more often.
It's ironic that many people are scrolling through social media to see what other people are doing, rather than paying attention to the people who are right in front of them. You can't have quality face-to-face interactions when you're distracted by your phone every couple of minutes.
5. Remote work can increase isolation.
The internet has increased our ability to work remotely. That can be good for our mental health in some ways--such as by reducing our commute time.
But, remote work also means less comradery with your colleagues. Communicating via email or the occasional phone call isn't the same as meeting around the water cooler.
Sometimes, it's your co-workers who best understand what you're going through on a day to day basis. For many individuals, whether they're entrepreneurs or remote employees, work can be quite isolating because other friends and family members don't really understand what they do all day.
Ironically, it takes extra effort to stay socially connected in the age of social media. But it's important to do so because loneliness can be bad for your physical health as well as your emotional well-being.
Get proactive about combatting loneliness. It can be difficult to reach out when you're feeling bad, but inviting someone to meet for coffee or joining an organization that will help you interact with others on a regular basis could be good for you. According to some studies, it might even help you live longer.