Monday 24 October 2016

Social media is no cure for the loneliness of modern life

Published 30/09/2015 | 02:30

With social media connecting us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, how can there be time to be lonely?
With social media connecting us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, how can there be time to be lonely?

Loneliness has traditionally been seen as an affliction of the elderly, but recent research has shown that it is reaching epidemic proportions among 30 to 40-year-olds.

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It's hard to imagine someone with a partner, two small children, a job and a home feeling lonely, yet these are the very people who are suffering.

The fact is that modern living is making us lonelier. So much so that it is considered to be the next big public health issue. Apparently, loneliness can increase mortality risk by 26pc.

For anyone who has experienced loneliness for a significant amount of time, research has shown that it can affect their health in a greater way than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.

So why are we so much lonelier now? With social media connecting us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, how can there be time to be lonely?

Modern living is the answer. With mobility on the rise, people are moving away from family and friends for a variety of reasons - to get better jobs or moving out to the suburbs to get a bigger house with a garden for the children.

We now live in small, nuclear families, often moving far away from our extended family and our friends. This exacerbates the feeling of loneliness.

For a young mother with small children, moving to a different town or city because of her husband's job can be very isolating. She finds herself in a new place, knows nobody and has no back-up or support.

A friend of mine who moved away to a small town in France said her husband was away on business when one of her children had an asthma attack in the middle of the night.

She didn't speak the language, knew no one and had to pack her three children into the car and drive to the hospital alone and terrified. She simply had nobody to call on for help.

People seem to think that 'connecting' with people on social media is the answer to loneliness, but neither Facebook, Instagram nor Twitter can help you when you're in a crisis.

They can't hug you when you're crying or hold your hand when you're worried.

They can't mind your children while you rush to hospital with a sick child.

We are social animals by nature, we crave belonging. And yet our relationships are becoming more superficial and much less rewarding.

Years ago, when I first started working, I developed a great email relationship with a colleague who was based in a different part of the country.

After a year of emailing and online banter, I finally met her face to face and we had nothing to say to each other. It was unbelievably awkward.

It was then that I realised how bizarre and fickle a remote relationship can be.

You only really get to know someone by spending time with them.

Another problem with social media is that people tend to give only a vision of their 'best selves' online.

Only the most flattering photos are posted. Only the best times are recorded. Everyone's life seems picture perfect.

This can make people feel even more isolated and lonely. People present an idealised version of themselves online. Looking at all your friends leading these 'fabulous' lives can make you feel inferior.

Another reason for loneliness among the younger demographic is down to working from home, or remotely. So many more people now work from home - especially women, as they try to fit their jobs around families and young children.

According to a study in 'The Journal of Business and Psychology', people who work from home have higher stress levels due to social isolation.

Those endless hours listening to colleagues moaning about the boss or talking at length about their love of train spotting is actually good for you.

Another myth about loneliness is that you have to be alone to be lonely. This is certainly not the case.

You can feel desperately lonely in a room full of people. Loneliness is about the quality, not the quantity, of our relationships.

Instead of having 600 Facebook friends, surely we would be much better off with six good friends whom we can count on, call on and rely on?

What can we do to combat loneliness?

Use social media carefully. Use it to keep in touch with good friends and family. Have fun on it, but don't expect it to take the place of face-to-face contact.

Helplines such as the Samaritans can be helpful for those feeling very isolated.

It is also important to try to get out of the house and connect with people.

Loneliness doesn't just make us unhappy, it can also lead to depression, anxiety and stress.

As the poet John Donne so eloquently put it: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

Irish Independent

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