We all need to spend more time with each other.

That's a recent finding after researchers surveyed 20,000 people over 18, asking 20 questions about anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

The questions, based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, looked at factors like social separation from society. A curious discovery? Researchers at the health service firm  Cigna, in conjunction with research partner Ipsos, say there is no connection between social media use and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The study did find out that adults are reaching "epidemic levels" of loneliness, as the researchers noted. Of those surveyed, 46 percent reported "sometimes" or "always" feeling lonely, and 47 percent said they feel separated from others.

The same report pointed to the root cause of the problem. It's not about using a phone too much or checking social media accounts constantly, although those issues are definitely causing other issues like addiction.

Instead, as the study found, more than half of us lack meaningful interactions during the day. And, the data reveals that younger generations tend to deal with the issue more than others. The loneliest age group? Cigna surveyed those in Gen Z ages 18-22 and found that they have a loneliness score of 48.3, the highest of all age groups.

The study found that the loneliness score is about the same for people who use social media (43 percent) as those who never use social media (41 percent).

This goes against the popular opinion about social media use and the ill effects on society, how it removes us from social circles. On one side, some experts have argued that social media makes you feel more isolated because you are constantly comparing yourself with others. Those who post constantly on Facebook and Instagram are sharing their best moments--for Gen Z that means hitting a high score on a test or a happy moment at a party with friends. In the past, the assumption has been that this creates feelings of isolation.

Another side of the debate has argued that social media makes us feel more connected and less isolated. Friends are always a click away, either through a chat session or by scrolling through the feed of people we know in person. Of course, we all know the definition of "friend" has changed in recent years. We're comparing ourselves against people we rarely even see or might not even know in person; we're "strengthening" relationships with strangers.

However, the Cigna study takes a starkly opposing view. Social media is not nurturing, and not destroying, our relationships. It's not having any impact. What's really missing from our lives is meaningful conversation with others, and social media is not really much of a factor. We might be checking Instagram because we're feeling isolated and not spending time with people, but that Instagram feed is not actually causing the isolation. It could be other factors, like working too much, not getting enough sleep, not engaging in enough physical activity, and not spending enough time with our family.

Social media is likely a symptom of the problems we face, but not the real cause. In the end, we've misplaced the blame. We're mindlessly scrolling through our feeds at Starbucks, but there's something more profound happening. It's not a digital issue, it's the fact that we're working more than ever and sleeping less. We look like zombies on social media because we are zombies; we've made poor life choices.

For me, the solution to many of these issues is not to abandon social media. It's to view Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms as mere tools. I see them as a means to an end when it comes to my job and in personal relationships. The real answer is not to "delete your account"--it's to invest in people, to choose activities that promote more interactions, and then to use social media to help. It's why I decided to start mentoring at a college every week; it's why I tend to leave my phone at home more and more.

We should stop blaming phone addiction and social media as the root causes. They are mere signs of an underlying epidemic of making poor choices about in-person contact. The phrase "we should get out more" suddenly sounds a lot more like an answer.

 

Published on: May 5, 2018