Although social media can be fun and educational, it can make for a lonelier experience for people. Social media shouldn’t replace face-to-face interactions with friends and family, since we need that to be healthy and happy.
For quite a number of years when I traveled to Japan I would witness groups of school girls interacting on the trains and in the subway after school. They were always dressed the same – blazer, white blouse, short skirt and knee-high socks. I used to love seeing them in their groups, laughing and giggling about something that I couldn’t translate but that I inherently understood just from observing them.
Then overnight, things changed. I saw the same groups of girls, but instead of speaking to each other they were absorbed in the screens of their phones. Their thumbs flew furiously but there were no spoken words. Oddly, on occasion girls standing side by side would look at each other and laugh – and that made it obvious to me that these girls were sending notes to each other instead of actually speaking.
The trend that I saw first in Tokyo has literally exploded around the world to the point now where people are more absorbed by their devices than they are by each other. Families out to dinner stare zombie-like at their smartphones and tablets. Children prefer video games to physical activity and are often reluctant participants in activities and conversations. People would rather update their Facebook page than go out with friends at night.
Some of the recent reports of large numbers of teenagers and young adults feeling depressed, lonely and anxious are alarming to read. When there is a greater concentration of people in urban areas with a plethora of things to do or places to gather, how can people feel increasingly alone? Is our absorption with technology changing the way that we engage with and support each other? Are brains being wired differently now in ways that are harmful to happiness and connection?
Mental health is a major part of overall health, and human connection is a key driver of mental health. How we feel and think literally can make us sick or well. Being with people, feeling connected to people, saying “Hello” to someone are all good for our mental and physical health. These are direct connections, not connections that are mediated by technology.
Connecting in person
Thinking that social media is a good proxy for connecting with friends and family in person might be part of the issue. I have yet to see research that validates this claim, but it makes some sense to me. Part of my reason for saying this is that there really is a difference between the reported feelings of loneliness based on age groups – younger people are not just a little lonelier, they’re a lot lonelier than people in their 50s and 60s who have not taken as heavily to social media.
Loneliness is a complex condition and it is not possible to understand the range of loneliness states without some detailed reading of the research and commentary. People like Oprah and Dr. Sanjay Gupta are not just concerned, they’re tackling it head on and encouraging people to say “Hello” to each other as a good start. Imagine something as simple as that having a positive impact on overall well-being.
We all need to pay attention to the social aspect of our health. Being active, limiting our time sitting and focusing on our mental well-being have to be daily priorities. Technology enables our lives but it can’t replace the social engagement that we enjoy from being with people. Let’s turn off the technology and tune into the people around us more.